Here’s where we run into some trouble.
While it’s been a few years since I read the source material, I don’t feel off base saying that “A Bad Beginning: Part One” sticks pretty close to the book. It’s not a one-to-one relationship, and there are some small, interesting changes (and one really, really big one), but the core narrative is familiar and straightforward: there are these kids, they lose almost everything, and they’re sent to live with a villain who wants what’s left. Not exactly breaking the mold here, but it’s a solid start to build on, and the resulting episode, which left off as the Baudelaires realized just how rotten their situation truly was, had lots of promise (terrible, terrible promise) for the future.
“A Bad Beginning: Part Two” delivers on much of this promise, concluding the series’ first major storyline in just the sort of twisty, happy-but-not-too-happy way one would expect. And that’s all to the good, but the second episode also has the adaptation veering off into more uncharted waters, structurally speaking, and as everyone knows, houseboats are not particularly stable. The structure, which began simply, starts to wobble, and the result is an episode that runs longer than its predecessor but seems to accomplish less. Mysteries abound, and everyone loves mysteries, but pile too many top of each other and… um… the boat sinks? Dammit, I had something for this.
The opening scene is a good example of what I’m getting at. In the first episode, Poe delivers the children to Count Olaf because he is their “closest living relative,” on the (incorrect) assumption that “closest” is a word that here means “nearest in geographical proximity” and not “nearest in familial and emotional terms.” This is a decent pun, and also fits in with one of the series’ main themes: the grotesque, Kafkaesque incompetence of the systems and people we entrust with our lives. The explanation was sufficient on its own—it got a laugh and fit with the show’s internal logic, and that’s enough.
“Part Two” spends a surprisingly large (I mean, five minutes or so) amount of time explaining just how this mistake came to happen, and how Olaf tricked Poe into delivering the orphans into his clutches. It’s not a bad sequence, offering Olaf a chance to demonstrate how bad he is at disguises (a joke that you should get comfortable with now), and also introducing us to Jacquelyn (Sara Canning), Mr. Poe’s surprisingly sensible secretary who has some connection the mysteries circling above the Baudelaire’s heads. She and her partner Gustav (Luke Camilleri) observe the story from afar, offering an occasional interjection but little concrete help or answers—poor Gustav apparently dies at the end.
So there’s some justification for spending some time at the beginning giving these hints of a larger world. The problem is, the scene leans too hard on the “just keep repeating this until it’s funny” jokes, and what justification it has doesn’t make up for the focus and energy it steals from what should be our main concern. Providing the audience with information they don’t need is never a good idea, and while we can argue about whether or not it’s important to bring in Jacquelyn (who gets immediately kidnapped and tied to a tree in a park outside of town) this early, the Olaf/Poe exchange doesn’t do much beyond giving Neil Patrick Harris a chance to mug. The fact that he’s very good at mugging doesn’t make up for the wasted screentime.
It also doesn’t make up for the distraction from what should be our main concern: the safety and well-being of the Baudelaire children. A large part of the dramatic impact of their plight comes from their solitude—they are trapped in a situation with no one to turn to for help, because Mr. Poe is useless and Justice Strauss really wants to be an actor. Neither are precisely bad people (Strauss, in fact, is quite lovely), but their inability to grasp what’s in front of them is an effective dramatic device, one that isolates the orphans even more profoundly than their terrible loco parentis. Showing other adults working behind the scenes to help them reduces that isolation, thus lowering the stakes.
Still, “Part Two” is mostly as enjoyably unpleasant as the series premiere, and the introduction of Olaf’s first diabolical design to obtain the Baudelaire fortune provides some much needed structure for the hour to fall back on. Whereas “Part One” was largely about introducing us to the characters and their plight, “Part Two” dives into the plotting, as Olaf arranges a theatrical performance that will allow him to marry poor Violet and, thanks to inherently misogynistic nuptial law, gain control of the money he so desperately craves.
It’s a fun scheme, playing into both Olaf’s knowledge base and his love of being the center of attention, and it offers a chance to get to know his henchpeople a bit better. As these henchpeople will presumably be popping up off and on throughout the series, it’s smart to make them memorable, if not exactly deep. We’ve got the twin White Faced Women (Jacqueline and Joyce Robbins), the large Bald Man (John DeSantis), the surprisingly philosophical Henchperson of Indeterminate Gender (Matty Cardarople), and, most frightening of them all, the Hook-Handed Man (Usman Ally). “Most frightening” is a relative term, but the Man’s two hook-hands serve as a decent metaphor for the gang as a whole: clumsy and weirdly charming, but capable of terrible violence if left to their own devices.
The greatest danger isn’t that Olaf will succeed in his plans, but that the Baudelaires will get lost in all the noise around them. As the emotional centers of the story, and the ones tasked with seeing things clearly and not getting to act like amusing idiots, they have the toughest job of anyone. Sunny, at least, gets by on novelty; the translations of her baby talk are reliably funny, and the sight gag of her biting the hell out of something is a good one. Poor Violet and Klaus have their work cut out for them, especially Violet, who, despite being the eldest and presumably the most adult of the three, has a bad habit of fading into the background. The show’s great love for its absurd monstrosities and conspiracy shenanigans means it’s rarely boring, but in order for for those shenanigans to remain compelling, there needs to be something more to them than nonsense.
So far at least, the Baudelaires’ vulnerability and determination have been enough. But it’s disconcerting how easily they can be overshadowed by the nonsense around them. This is their story after all, no matter how often Count Olaf tries to hijack it, and it would be an even worse tragedy than everything else if the show lost sight of that in all the secret organizations, hints, and Looney Tunes villainy. At the end of “A Bad Beginning,” Violet, Klaus, and Sunny manage to evade Olaf’s machinations; Violet uses her left hand instead of her right during the wedding, thus invalidating the ceremony, a fact that Klaus is able to prove to the audience using his vast store of knowledge and a convenient chalkboard. Sunny manages to free herself by being very good at cards. But Olaf and his henchpersons escape under cover of darkness and adult ineptitude. The Baudelaire journey is far from over. Here’s hoping they (and us) don’t get lost along the way.
- On Friday, I misidentified K. Todd Freeman—he was a regular on Buffy, but he played the Mayor’s aide Mr. Trick, not Sweet from “Once More With Feeling.” Very sorry about this, but I’ll use my mistake as a chance to point out once again that he is excellent here.
- Olaf putting his hand on Violet’s shoulder is incredibly creepy. It’s a difficult tone to strike—Olaf has to be comically inept in order for him to be watchable, but he also has be legitimately effective and threatening enough that the story has tension. I’m not sure the show has found a coherent way to manage this yet.
- “You will suddenly find yourself in the enviable position of being a struggling actress in her middle age!” -Olaf, giving Justice Strauss the soft sell.
- I didn’t mention this on Friday, but the theme song is delightful. And it changes over time!
- We head to “The Reptile House: Part One” on Tuesday. See you then.