Once again, a series of events appears to be happening; and once again, those events are very much unfortunate. ASOUE’s second season picks up where the first season ended with the Baudelaires waiting to enroll in the magnificently dreary Prufrock Preparatory School. Sunny looks a bit older now, but circumstances are very much the same. Their parents are dead, Count Olaf wants their fortune, and all the adults are too vain, too selfish, or too incompetent to be much use. Last season, our heroes discovered hints about a secret organization that might prove the answer to their prayers, but right now everything is miserable, which is just the way we like it.
“The Austere Academy: Part One” continues the structure the show established last year, for better and worse. You’ll be shocked to discover the orphans have been placed in the care of a less than trustworthy guardian (if you could even call Nero a “guardian;” it seems the children have been left to the mercy of the state at this point), just as you’ll be flabbergasted to find that their new circumstances are, well, bad. “Part One” spends considerable time establishing Prufrock Prep and wallowing in the kids’ misery; Olaf is hanging around the fringes, but he doesn’t actually introduce his new disguise (Coach Genghis, a guy with a southern accent in a turban, which… fine) until the final moments.
Which means, narratively, there’s not a lot of urgency here. Not that this is anything new to the series. The structure of spending two episodes on each short novel in the series is pretty much pacing death, as even with all their elaborate asides and various digressions, there’s not all that much plot to unravel. Olaf menaces the kids; the kids struggle with said menacing; Olaf’s ultimate plan is revealed; at the last minute, the children figure out a way to thwart him; Olaf escapes.
Really, it’s the sort of structure that wouldn’t be out of place in the pre-serialization era of television, back when the Gilligan’s Island castaways could spend episode after episode almost-but-not-quite getting away without anything ever really changing. There’s an ongoing storyline here, and a good chunk of “Part One” centers around efforts to get the Baudelaires a copy of a book which apparently explains everything, but no matter how desperate characters may apparently seem, there’s no real urgency to any of this. A rigid structure allows room for improvisation and texture, but it also means your audience isn’t all that worried about what happens next. It would be like watching a Road Runner cartoon and being really concerned (or hopeful) that Wile E. Coyote might finally win.
But then, no one (very small children and Acme lawyers aside) watches Road Runner cartoons for the story. You watch for the gags. There are gags aplenty in “Part One,” most of them coming courtesy of the entries various villains; Olaf and his crew, of course, but Prufrock is home to some memorable miscreants, most notable Principal Nero and prize student Carmelita Spats. As Nero, Roger Bart is wonderfully unhinged, a self-absorbed amatuer musician who insists on mandatory attendance for his tuneless violin recitals. Kitana Turnball is also terrific as Spats, a nightmare brat who labels everyone she doesn’t like “cake-sniffers” and is constantly (shudder) dancing and singing.
They’re both the worst. But they’re also delightful, just as Neil Patrick Harris’s turn as Olaf continues to entertain. The Baudelaire children are fine, and absolutely necessary from both a story and comedy standpoint; the madness wouldn’t register quite so effectively if it didn’t have the kids around to underline just how maddening this all is. The addition of the Quagmires at least gives them someone else to talk to, and offers some small hope that not everyone is completely terrible. (In addition, of course, to being yet another clue that might lead our heroes to the secret organization at the heart of all of this.)
Still, while “Part One” has a few more allies lurking in the sidelines (in addition to Jacquelyn and Larry, the kids also meet a very friendly librarian played by Sara Rue), the show continues to belong to its villains. That’s clearly by design; villains are generally more fun anyway, and in the show’s comically awful world, there are always going to be more people looking to get in your way (and steal your enormous fortune) then there are people trying to keep you safe. If the show can be said to have a point, beyond its Tim-Burton-Looney-Tunes-Kafka aesthetic, it’s that the deck is stacked against anyone determined to be kind, and the most you can hope for is the occasional ray of light in the gloom. Preferably shaped like a bird.
- Mr. Poe continues his reign of incompetence, although he’s relegated to a background character here—used for a gag at the beginning and not much else.
- According to Lemony, we’re “one-third” of the way through the story which, honestly, just made me feel sort of tired? (And I like the show!)
- Prufrock’s motto is “Memento Mori,” which translates to “Remember you will die.” Because of course it is.
- The show’s mixture of cartoon logic and adult gags always throws me a little. Like: Olaf takes a job coaching at the school after he and his gang steal the school bus and kick the gym teacher (and wrestling team) off. None of these characters actually died, but they’re pretty much gone for good, which almost makes it seem like they did die. Which, when you think about it, is arguably creepier than if Olaf had just murdered the lot of them, as though “getting lost in the woods” is the same thing as “disappearing forever.”