Photo: Joseph Lederer (Netflix)

So, the Quagmire triplets. Or as the adults call them, the Quagmire twins—poor Quigley died in the fire that killed their parents. (There’s a lot of that going around.) It’s an odd tonal choice for a nominally kid-friendly comedy show to make regular gags about a dead toddler, but that odd tone has been a hallmark of the series from the start. It’s what drew me to read the books, and to keep reading them even after I got irritated by the repetitive structure; that malice lurking just behind the goofy gloom-and-doom surface. At first all you notice are the gags about misery and despair, but it’s not long before you realize that no matter how silly all that awfulness gets, people are still dying. In fires, in boats, from poison.

It’s odd because in traditional kid’s entertainment, deaths are suppose to matter. (Hell, they matter in any story—even the most pitch black comedy expects to get some charge out of a corpse.) And they matter here, but not in a traditional “Fuck up and the villains will get you!” kind of way. The stakes are relatively obvious, but the way those stakes are expressed rarely creates genuine suspense, because the outcome is never in doubt. The Baudelaires do everything right, and they still suffer; and every time they find a guardian who seems even remotely supportive or useful or slightly less than completely terrible, that guardian has to be taken out of the way somehow. Death isn’t a shock or a sudden shift of the norm; it’s just slightly more intense expression of the general mood.

While that’s arguably more realistic than the usual approach (Memento Mori, and all that), it makes for a story that’s weirdly hard to get invested in. There’s just no real emotional variance to what we’re watching; either it’s mordantly funny or just mordant, and the few moments of actual sweetness and uplift seem contractually obligated, the way cartoons in the eighties would include PSAs at the end to pretend they were educational. Occasionally the beats work (there’s a lovely, melancholy moment in “Part Two” when Lemony and his brother, Jacques, whistle together in a taxi), but the comically miserabilist worldview the series adopts—the worldview that in part defines it—also limits its range considerably.

Which brings us back to the Quagmires, a new force of good who offer the Baudelaires some comfort on their journey, but not a lot of variance otherwise. “Part Two” ends with Duncan and Isadora in Olaf’s clutches, which means that at least we’ll have a different sort of stakes going ahead, forcing Klaus, Violet, and Sunny to worry about more than just saving themselves. But thanks to the show’s approach to good vs. evil, the new kids aren’t allowed much chance to distinguish themselves.

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That’s part of the point, of course; Isadora and Duncan are intended not just as allies but as a kind of reflection of our heroes, underlining the weird conspiracies driving the show (they all lose their parents in a fire; their parents were involved in some mysterious group) and suggesting that the Baudelaires’ plight isn’t as distinctive as it initially appeared. That the new kids start off as symbols isn’t a problem, and it’s not as though anyone (with the possible exception of Olaf himself) is exactly nuanced here, but it would’ve been nice to learn a bit more about them. The Baudelaires have their gifts. At the very least, we should’ve gotten a chance to learn about the Quagmires’.

This may seem like nitpicking of another generally funny episode, one that introduces Jacques Snicket (Nathan Fillion, basically playing a version of Captain Hammer who isn’t a dick) and Olaf reveals his latest scheme: exhausting the kids through forced lap running so that they’ll fail their classes and he can adopt them for “homeschooling.” It’s not the most elaborate scheme, but it at least allows the episode a little more dramatic weight—where “Part One” spent most of its time building the world of Prufrock Prep, “Part Two” has an actual conflict, one that builds to a confrontation that ends pretty much how you’d expect.

Is it entertaining? Sure. Carmelita Spats is the gift that keeps giving no matter how many times you return it, and the reveal that she’s a secret cake-sniffer is both obvious and hilarious. Olaf’s “Coach Genghis” disguise isn’t particularly well-realized, more a collection of tics than a coherent gag character, but there are some laughs in his self-help nonsense. Nero continues to be hilarious. But the fact that the show can spend this much time on an adaptation and yet still feel thin isn’t a great sign.

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Stray observations

  • The fact that the computer security system set-up never actually pays off annoyed me more than it probably should have. We’re introduced to the idea in the first part; Olaf manages to fool the system (while apparently having no idea how he’s fooling it); and then the kids reveal who he is, and the system finally recognizes him. That’s it. It’s really just another variation of the show’s running gag about how adults never recognize Olaf’s terrible disguises.
  • “The whole school is falling for the treachery of an unhinged villain.” “That always happens at pep rallies.”
  • “That night was indeed a dark day.”
  • Is this the first mention of “VFD”? The Quagmires manage to get a look at The Incomplete History of Secret Organizations, and shout the three letters to the Baudelaires as they’re being kidnapped.

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