Photo: Eike Schroter (Netflix)
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[Inset boilerplate rewording of “series of unfortunate events” here. I dunno, maybe try something that rhymes this time? Feels pretty hollow at this point. Eventually you really have to let a formula go, or else just double down and make a meal out of it, but I’m not really feeling either. Could go meta. That seems lazy, though.]

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When last we left the Baudelaire orphans, things were not going well. Count Olaf had once again managed to escape the authorities with his merry band of miscreants; and while he was unsuccessful in his initial efforts to murder Violet and Klaus, he did manage to inadvertently lead to the death of a nice librarian, as well as kidnap Sunny. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, circumstances conspired to give him a yet another chance to get rid of the other two Baudelaires, this time via a circus wagon, a narrow road, and some very sharp turns. The kids were at their wits end, and while the possibility that one of their parents might have survived the fire offered some hope, it was obvious things weren’t going to work out the way anyone wanted them to.

Really, that’s the only comfort the show has to offer: our heroes have yet to find safety, but their nemesis isn’t doing all that well himself. “The Slippery Slope: Part One” really drives that home by introducing a pair of villains who are actually competent: The Man With a Beard and No Hair (MWBNH), played by Richard Grant, and The Woman With Hair and No Beard (WWHNB), played by Beth Grant. The pair apparently murders the trio of circus freaks who made the poor choice to side with Olaf last season, and then reunite with Olaf to lecture him about all his failures. They’re his mentors, you see; they’re the ones who taught him to light fires.

We’re getting close to ASOUE’s end game, and that means we’re finally getting some answers; or, at the very least, we’re getting new mysteries to pick up where the old ones left off. While Sunny hangs out with Olaf and his troupe, Violet and Klaus (having escaped death via Violet’s inventing skills) stumble across a group of Snow Scouts making the hike up Mount Fraught—including a mysterious, masked stranger and the Queen of the Cake-Sniffers, Carmelita Spats. The episode takes on some of the series’ tropes: there’s a new, horrible location, an ineffectual authority figure (here in the form of the Snow Scout troop leader), and new threats. But there’s so much other stuff going on that the usual tricks fail to really register as more than perfunctory.It’s surprising; after establishing its bonafides as another “meandering because why the hell not” streaming show, ASOUE’s third season makes an effort to speed things up. At a comparatively svelte 43 minutes, the premiere moves at a good clip, following multiple characters (in addition to the kids, Olaf, and Olaf’s mentors, there’s also Lemony Snicket’s pregnant sister, Kit, and Lemony himself popping in and out) without ever staying in any one place for too long. That still leaves plenty of time for Olaf’s buffoonery, Klaus and Violet’s misery, Carmelita’s brattiness, and Sunny being cute as hell, but there’s little of that why-not-let-the-actors-vamp-a-bit airlessness that plagued the previous two seasons.

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Which is all for the better. What we’re left with instead is… a somewhat mean-spirited kid’s show that’s occasionally funny and interesting, and, even at its worst, at least manages the distinction of being unique. In the past, the second half of each two part episode pair has been stronger because it’s the one where things actually happen, and theoretically, that vibe should lend an air of urgency and importance to this season as a whole. The story is approaching its climax, and however awkward and ungainly the journey to get here might have been, it still gains some power from the promise of a conclusion.

“Slippery Slope: Part One” is basically fine. There are bits that work—the friendship between the Hook-Handed Man and Sunny is adorable, and MWBNH and WWHNB are immediately creepy antagonists. It’s fun to see Olaf thrown off his game even more than usual, and Carmelita Spats was a highlight of the previous season, so hopefully she’ll get to be entertainingly obnoxious here as well.

But there’s not a ton of urgency at this point. I’m struggling to figure out why. There are plenty of questions that need answering, and when Klaus, Violet, and the Mysterious Masked Figure find the VFD headquarters burnt to the ground, it should feel like the stakes are being raised. But the kids have been tormented for so long that it’s hard to know what, if anything, we should be rooting for here. The drama has all the tension of your average Saturday morning cartoon; people do actually die in ASOUE as opposed to, say, Thundercats, but the same predictable rhythm of peril and escape without any meaningful change.

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I’m not even sure what meaningful change would actually be at this point. The show is certainly watchable, and occasionally funny. Neil Patrick Harris’s shtick is wearing thin, but it hasn’t actually collapsed in on itself, and the fact that he’ll have to deal with a pair of disappointed mentors at least gives the actor a different dynamic to play with. But ASOUE is stuck in the curious space of having the simplified logic of children’s stories and the world-weary cynicism of a sneering adolescent. It’s a combination that’s fun to visit, but three seasons is an awful long time to live there.

Stray observations

  • “For Beatrice— When we met, you were pretty, and I was lonely. Now I am pretty lonely.”
  • “What’s happening?” “We didn’t die!” “Not yet!”
  • Given how things have been going, it seems like Kit Snicket is probably going to die before this is all over; I suppose “killing the pregnant woman” at least has the value of novelty on a kid’s show.
  • Violet and Klaus talking about which parent they hope is still alive is fairly affecting. It’s difficult to find emotional honesty in such absurd situations, but the show (and the actors) still manage it from time to time.
  • There’s a cute bit where Lemony explains “Stockholm Syndrome,” with Mr. Poe and the bank-robbing teacher from Prufrock Pre standing in as examples.

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