Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season 2

Netflix’s absurdist comedy returns, following the Baudelaire orphans through another series of unfortunate events. Remaining a uniquely surreal and sardonic addition to Netflix’s catalogue, A Series of Unfortunate Events continues to be a darkly comic show – don’t look away!

Series two of the show recounts books five to seven, telling the story from The Austere Academy to The Carnivorous Carnival. One of the show’s strengths has been its loyalty to its source material, but this becomes harder in the second series as the Baudelaires begin to delve deeper into the murky world of the mysterious V.F.D organisation.

“It may be good to have the occasional hint of optimism”

The show has unfortunately had to abandon some of the sense of secrecy developed in the book series by introducing resident good-guys Jacques Snicket, brother of narrator Lemony, and Olivia Caliban, librarian turned volunteer, who seek to save the children. It may be good to have the occasional hint of optimism in such a bleak series, but don’t fear – it doesn’t last for long.

This isn’t all bad though, as series two owes a lot of its charisma to the outrageous villainy of the baddies. Particularly welcome are new cast members Kitana Turnbull as school bully Carmelita Spats and Lucy Punch as the fabulous Esmé Squalor, the ironically named financial advisor and wicked stepmother to boot. Both are fantastic comic actors and bring brilliant contrasts to Neil Patrick Harris’ viciously stupid Count Olaf. Esmé and Olaf may not quite be #couplegoals, but their squabbling relationship, filled with petty jealousy and some mindful adult humour, revitalises the new series.

“Bizarrely bad disguises is more prominent in series two”

It’s to the show’s merit that it continues to play up its camp inclinations. Esmé Squalor has given the show another excuse to show off its flair for the flamboyant; the creativity of the costume department contributes a lot to the fun of the show, and Esmé’s disguises in particular are great to gawp at. (Would Esmé Squalor be a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race? Her disguises point to a big fat yes.)  The ridiculousness of affected accents and bizarrely bad disguises is more prominent in series two and gives the show a solid sense of character that makes it what it is.

With all the sets used this series built from scratch by the production team, it’s not only the characters that look good. From the horror-film homage of The Hostile Hospital to a whole vile village, the settings of the show are intricately made and well-crafted. It’s more understandable as to why the show has continued to give a two-hour slot to every book adaption with that amount of effort going into every set, making it unfortunate that not every book really needs that amount of attention. There are moments of repetition or cringeworthy filler, with a particularly suspect musical number occurring during The Ersatz Elevator springing to mind.

“Surviving characters from series one continue to mature confidently”

This isn’t to say that the show shies away from the seriousness of its subject matter. Thematically, series two is much stronger and is tied together by matters such as mob mentality and the irresponsibility of sensationalised journalism; Olivia Caliban can be spotted reading a book about the history of the Weimar Republic during her time at the austere academy. Surviving characters from series one continue to mature confidently: as the Baudelaire orphans begin to face moral dilemmas that are more complex than being just right or just wrong, the show is starting to hint that there is more to Olaf than a money-grabbing criminal.

It’s this growth of pre-existing characters that makes the likes of Jacques and Olivia boringly sincere in their good intentions, while Count Olaf’s troupe largely languish on the peripheral of a stellar main cast. The introduction of the Quagmire triplets, consisting of two survivors Isadora and Duncan, is also overshadowed. With their scenes consisting of a mix of heart-warming friendship and some clumsy hints at romance, the Quagmire’s don’t quite leave their mark on the show.

“The series was always going to be a challenge”

A Series of Unfortunate Events has never really made itself adaption friendly. From anachronistic settings to its brisk switching of scenes and characters, along with plot devices so mysterious that fans still aren’t totally sure why they’re important, the series was always going to be a challenge.

However, Netflix continues to capture the heart of the books through its faithfulness to such a tricky source, with its success founded upon an ironic awareness of how wonderfully weird the show and series has always been.


Freya Whiteside

Image courtesy of Sonnenfield Company and Paramount Television. 

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