Last year we got the sordid start of the tale of the Baudelaire orphans. And now along comes the menacing middle: ten episodes, two apiece dedicated to a book in the saga created by verbose wordsmith Daniel Handler. This will be the longest of the three seasons, and though we’re now into territory uncharted on screen (the 2004 film covered the first three books), this is the one most likely to test a binge-watcher’s patience. The USP of Unfortunate Events, after all, is its ever-looping structure, with poor Violet, Klaus and Sunny (the superb and understated Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes, plus often digitally enhanced toddler Presley Smith) escaping one horrid location and the greasy clutches of a poorly disguised Count Olaf (Harris) only to end up in an even more horrid one, and back in those aforementioned greasy clutches.
Is it repetitive? Yes, extremely. And there’s a slight sense of strain here in terms of keeping things fresh, not least in terms of Olaf’s disguises: the perma-lunging fake PE teacher Coach Genghis is not a million miles away from the jive-happy fake crime-solver Detective Dupin. Then again, Olaf is supposed to be the world’s worst actor, so his lack of range shouldn’t be surprising. Happily, there are two major boons here that give Season 2 its own flavour. One is Lucy Punch’s Esmé Squalor, a truly awful creation who’s part Cruella de Vil, part Edna Mode, obsessed with what’s “in” and what’s “out” and equipped with the moral compass of a ferret. Punch makes a superb foil for Harris, sneering lines such as, “Sleeping is a part of life, like cosmetics and frivolous lawsuits,” at just the right level of cartoonish amplitude. She is perfect casting.
The other new element is the backstory. We got a taste of it last time, but here an entire secret network begins to be exposed, involving a man with the glorious name ‘Larry Your-Waiter’, a secretary named Jacquelyn (invented for the TV show) and Jacques Snicket, brother of narrator Lemony. The latter is played, with square-jawed zest, by guest star Nathan Fillion, making this an unexpected Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog cast reunion when he shares the screen with Harris. These characters dropping in and out of the action is where the series deviates most from its source material, and helps flesh out scenes that were a little light on the page.
Otherwise, it’s unfortunate business as usual. The vibe is still firmly ‘Gothic melodrama, but funny’. The wordplay is still inspired. And Harris’ Olaf is still an exuberant ham, at one point belting out a showtune called ‘Chasing Your Schemes’. But the real stars of the show are the folks behind the production design and visual effects. From a hellish boarding school where the apples taste like horseradish, to a Western-style village run by deranged elders with crows stuck to their hats, to an Art Deco skyscraper with a suspicious elevator shaft, the world of the books has been brought to life and then some. Roll on 2019 and The Slippery Slope.