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Teasing themes of authority run amok in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events



For millions of Americans, the past 18 months have been a "series of unfortunate events," culminating in the inauguration of a deeply divisive president and a cultural mood of doom and gloom. By coincidence (maybe?) among the seemingly unending string of Netflix original releases is Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events--an eight episode series based on the widely popular young adult book series and 2004 Jim Carrey star vehicle of the same name.

This time starring Neil Patrick Harris as the unscrupulous Count Olaf, whose obsession with robbing the orphaned Baudelaire children of their alleged vast wealth, A Series of Unfortunate Events quietly dropped on Netflix earlier this month with its mix of gallows humor, stylized violence and—perfect for this season of discontent—cynical view of so-called "adult" authority figures.

A Boise Weekly panel sat down to parse the show with an eye toward unpacking how its singularly dim view of traditional power structures dovetails with the current social climate. (The conversation has been edited for space.)

Zach Hagadone: "We should start with our thoughts on the show itself. Is it any good? I liked it, but it feels like Wes Anderson meeting Tim Burton for some kind of weird romp. ... That's just my thing, but another criticism I've read is some viewers were put off by the structure: every two episodes represents one storyline from the book series, so every two episodes you're repeating this formula of 'the kids are in trouble, they're with a new guardian, the guardian gets snuffed or whatever.' Some people found that disjointed, like they're being jerked around. I felt like the disjointed feeling actually heightened the uncertainty and chaos being experienced by the characters. The kids are always up in the air so, as a viewer, you're always up in the air."

Harrison Berry: "That resonated with me, too. It's this idea that somehow the adults are supposed to be the problem solvers, but they're incapable of seeing the fact that every time those kids are rescued from the perils of Count Olaf they deliver the children right back into the hands of Count Olaf. That repetitiveness really speaks to the idea that we're incapable of learning from our mistakes. The only thing that's not stylized is the pain and terror these children are experiencing. Everything around them is a bureaucratic satire."

ZH: "If Netflix didn't plan for A Series of Unfortunate Events to come out right now, they probably should have. That theme of the 'bureaucratic satire' and good-intentioned, innocent people being totally screwed and jacked around by a bunch of sinister authority figures fits pretty well with the current political mood."

Amy Atkins: "Or one idiot puppet master. Somehow this narcissistic asshat is able to control everybody's lives—change everything."

ZH: "I know it's totally unintentional, but you don't have too look to far to draw a parallel between our current president and Count Olaf, who's a shitty actor..."

AA: "Weird hair. Talks about himself all the time..."

ZH: "Lives in a big house, is obsessed with money..."

George Prentice: "You can't get away from it."

HB: "What do you guys make of the fact that people are constantly defining things in the show? People are always saying, 'In this instance this is what this turn of phrase means.'"

Sami Edge: "I love that, because in the books, which are geared toward young readers, kids learn those. I like it."

GP: "It is a Greek chorus. Just dramatically, it moves it."

HB: "It's also the currency of power. The kids will often define terms for older characters and the older characters promptly dismiss them."

AA: "That's why it felt all mansplainy."

ZH: "Also, the adult characters will also often use a word and explain it directly to the kids, and the kids will say, 'Yeah, we know that.'"

AA: "Is it to hyper-realize the hubris of the adults and sort of really bring into relief the idea that no matter what the kids do or say, the adults are going to think they know better?"

GP: "You can paint someone as being self important, informative or supportive. So when the kid says, 'Duh,' there's a self important aspect to that often older character in the show."

ZH: "The only adult who has any rationality is Lemony Snicket (played by Patrick Warburton)—he's almost a journalistic force in the story, giving you the facts, no matter how terrible they are, and he's the only person you can trust."

HB: "He has power as a storyteller and somehow achieves integrity despite being a partisan within the narrative itself."

ZH: "Am I being too sensitive when I see this as a political zeitgeisty kind of thing?"

HB: "No, absolutely not. It's almost heavy-handed. When you look at the character of Count Olaf, this is a show where neutrality is no different than complicity."

GP: "It's totally not intentional, though. I can name you 20 things on television that I now watch through the Trump prism—from Scandal to the Young Pope to this. I cannot not think of that; it's a Trump kaleidoscope."

AA: "I hope kids watching it see the power in themselves—even though they get thwarted at every turn; their parents are gone; and they're getting shuffled off to these weird, dangerous people and places. I hope they see that, as Violet is pulling that ribbon around her hair, it's, 'Yes! She's going to go do something great."

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