If Lemony Snicket could tell you one thing, it would be the fact that nothing is funnier than a man tripping over his own shoes. On January 13th, Netflix pulled a loaded gun and shot the bulls-eye right out of the target with an adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Not only is it the first YA series to become a streaming #TV show (in a line of more to come, hopefully), it's also a smashing success. The reviews are glowing, which is good, because everything else in this eight-part series is blacker than tar, coffee grounds, and despair itself. Without the self-deprecating humor or the clever satire, it wouldn't be as entertaining or, strangely enough, emotional.
There are four different ways A Series of Unfortunate Events tells a story that essentially becomes an outright parody of itself.
First, A Note From The Author: This Is Ridiculous!
When you start watching, the limitations of the show are obvious: There are none. A Series of Unfortunate Events follows the recently orphaned Baudelaire children as they are passed from one dangerous guardian to the next, all while escaping Count Olaf, who has an eye on their fortune.
The show has absolutely no boundaries. It never fails to reach for the dumbest jokes or poke fun at the legitimate emotional experiences of the characters, so how does it stay balanced? The answer is in the humor, which is why self-parody is so important to the success of the show.
1. Lemony Snicket Tells a Cruel, Depressing Story
Narration is a tool used by books more often than movies or TV shows, but A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the rare productions that says, "Screw it, we're putting a narrator onscreen." Lemony Snicket, a fictional author created by Daniel Handler and brought to life by Patrick Warburton, is the first place A Series of Unfortunate Events shows off its self-aware sense of humor.
Who is Lemony Snicket? He's the deadpan, depressing, and absolutely hilarious guy you'd never want as a father, but would pick as your bedtime storyteller every single night. In a sea of ridiculous plot lines and ignorant characters, he's the voice of reason. He bridges the gap between the story and the viewer. Most importantly, he gives the show a sense of humanity.
Snicket shows up in the middle of the action—figuratively and literally—to add a rational outside opinion, quickly becoming one of the most relatable characters. He stars in brilliant cutscenes that foretell graver dangers for the Baudelaire children. He even has a bit of his own story. All of his contributions shape the way A Series of Unfortunate Events moves and breathes, and as the narrator, he's the most immediately recognizable source of self-parody.
2. Going Much Too Far
After #LemonySnicket's sobering narration, you'd think A Series of Unfortunate Events couldn't get funnier, but this is a show about the lives of three orphans, and life (as we know) is full of surprises. Each episode counteracts the gravity of the narration with overacting (Neil Patrick Harris is beyond funny), overproducing, and overdoing everything else.
We notice the overproduction first in the visual style of the show. A Series of Unfortunate Events is, in a word, unsettling. Animations and special effects are sometimes purposefully awkward, and the color grading is gleefully on-the-nose. When the Baudelaire children first meet Count Olaf, we are treated to a bluebird flying from the sunny side of the street to the cloudy side, where it is snatched up by a raven as soon as it reaches Count Olaf's darkened window. Yes, it's that dramatic.
Not only does the ridiculous nature of the show give Lemony Snicket something to narrate, but the rest of the characters (Violet, Klaus, and Sunny excepted) are perfectly unaware of their own personalities. They embrace the drama and keep pushing the limit, throwing everything they've got at the screen. The longer it goes on, the longer we begin to realize the entire show is in a side-splitting competition with itself. How can the next episode be more bonkers than the last?
When the children are the smartest characters, you know you're watching something unique.
3. Klaus The Scholar
The third form of self-parody doesn't come from insightful narration or obvious overproduction. Klaus Baudelaire, the middle child of the orphans, has an important part to play with his dialogue. Klaus is the scholar. When he speaks, he spews bookish knowledge and literary quotes. He's one of a kind in the story, which makes for an interesting dynamic between the children and Count Olaf's shady theater troupe.
Klaus Baudelaire uses his intelligence (alongside Violet's innovative mind and Sunny's razor-sharp teeth) to fight the bumbling gang of Count Olaf. The three children are smart; Count Olaf and his fellow actors are not. The contrast is funny at first, but A Series of Unfortunate Events takes a turn that leaves the simple humor behind.
When the Baudelaire children keep losing — each time by unseen circumstances — we're all left thinking, "This really is horrible." A Series of Unfortunate Events is filled with unintelligent characters and unintelligent humor, but it makes fun of these aspects by throwing in the sharp-witted Baudelaires. Then it makes fun of the Baudelaires by watching them fail again and again. Nobody has the last laugh.
With all of these story parts making fun of the others, it's a surprise A Series of Unfortunate Events stays on track, but there's one more piece to this hilariously confused puzzle.
The last thing you'd expect from a story that frames itself in golden parody and strives to drip black moods across the screen is the presence of strong emotional themes. Not just any emotions, but positive emotions. Where is this coming from? When all the dark pieces slide into place, the story hits hard in an unexpectedly bright way.
A Series of Unfortunate Events makes fun of its own shadowy nature by allowing small, hopeful moments to shine through. They don't appear often, but when they do roll around, they aren't whitewashed bits of inspiration from the sky or tweetable, feel-good lines. A Series of Unfortunate Events fixates on truth. Small, specific truths. When the Baudelaire children lose an uncle, Lemony Snicket takes the time to say a few moving words about loss and grief. #NeilPatrickHarris's overacting turns a sour color, adding strength to the emotional themes of perseverance and intellectual resolve. The show turns the darkness upside down, poking at the fact that when everything is gloomy, nothing is fun.
A Series of Unfortunate Events makes a parody out of its own selling point, and if that isn't brave, then Count Olaf is my uncle.
This not a happy show. It isn't a funny show or an overwhelmingly enjoyable show. It's all of those things at once, and sometimes a million other things, too. Thanks to the smart, self-aware style, it's the best #YoungAdult TV series yet. After all, when you can't laugh at yourself, everything is bound to seem unbearably unfortunate.