Mari can’t resist starting new things or things based on books, so.
The Bad Beginning: Part One
Marines: This show is based on some books I read many, many moons ago. I remember them vaguely. I also paid actual money to see the movie adaptation in theaters. That I remember more clearly. So, here we are.
Samantha: I read and loved these books too. I remember them well and push them at the children who come into my library all the time. “Terrible stuff happens to these kids but the fun is seeing how they take care of each other and think their way out!”
Annie: I read the books and loved them! I avoided the movie and I don’t remember why now, but at the time I felt pretty good about my decision at the time. I was so excited to hear that Netflix was doing this series. And like Neil Patrick Harris, guys. NPH!
Mari: We start with an actual credits song, which makes me about as happy as an actual pilot episode title. Neil Patrick Harris sings us through a quick introduction of the Baudelaire misfortune and asks us viewers to look away. Why would we possibly want to watch all the bad things about to happen? (This song is about to be refashioned into my theme song for today’s political climate.) (S: Yeah, memorize it Traumateers, and sing it in the night.)
Tunnel. A man who looks like a Bargain Bin Jon Hamm (Patrick Warburton, whose been in a lot of stuff I haven’t seen) lights a match and gives us the first line of the book almost exactly: If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. BBJHamm is Lemony Snicket, our narrator, and he tells us once again to look away. When we don’t, he repeats that this story will be dreadful and melancholy. (S: I cheered so hard! Which isn’t what I was supposed to do but the tone was so on point to the book!)
We pan up and out of the tunnel to a trolley that is rolling by, the Baudelaire children at the back looking out towards the camera with vague smiles. Lemony Snicket continues his exposition by telling us that Violet, Klaus and Sunny were intelligent children who have really crappy luck. He looks out to the other side of the trolley where an old school fire engine rolls by, sirens wailing. Now’s a good time to mention that the show has got this muted Pushing Daisies vibe and color palette. Sometimes it’s also got an almost cartoonish tinge to it, almost as if we are watching cutouts in stop motion, if that makes sense. Also, Violet plays young Kara in Supergirl. It was bothering me that her face looked familiar. I at first just chalked it up to her sharing facial features with Emily Browning who originally played this role.
Anyhow, the Baudelaire parents have sent their children to Briny Beach. As they get off the rickety trolley (and Lemony is on hand to define rickety for us, as he does in the books), they wonder at why their parents didn’t come along. They’ve picked this gray and cloudy day to stay at the beach because it’s empty and they can work on their experiments together.
Lemony tells us that Violet is 14 and good with inventions. We cut to a scene at the Baudelaire mansion where Violet explains to Klaus that her grandfather clock toaster toasts the bread but falls behind five minutes. See, because good with inventions.
Back at the beach, Violet ties up her hair with a ribbon, a sure sign that the wheels are turning in her head. (S: As a child I often tried to do this and was constantly frustrated at how tricky it actually is.) Next up is Klaus, who is a little older than 12 and wears glasses and is probably me as a child but a boy. His little cutaway scene is also back at the mansion. He’s struggling with a passage from Proust: Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.
Also, I’m not really Klaus because at just older than 12 I was reading… not Proust.
Sunny is the baby, who babbles and shrieks, but Violet understands her. Plus, she’s got four incredible teeth, which she now uses to shape some rock. Actual thing.
Violet gets ready to skip the rock, but Klaus suggest she do it with her right hand for maximum scientific standardization. She goes for it and they quote Einstein and James Brown before turning on their experiment. It’s a robotic arm, essentially. It goes out to the sea and finds the stone they just skipped. It brings the stone back and Violet and Klaus celebrate.
Back in the tunnel, Lemony tells us that he’s spent a lot of time trying to figure out what caused the fire at the Baudelaire mansion, but to no avail. He uses a trap door with specific markings to climb out of the tunnel and into the Baudelaire library. As he talks about the fact that fireman arrived too late to stop the fire, the library goes up in flames around him.
Samantha: Love the atmosphere, completely feeling the mysterious creepy odd.
Annie: I feel Lemony was casted so, so well in this. Bobo Jon Hamm is just perfect. I can’t tell you how often I said this out loud as I watched this each time he came on the screen.
Mari: And to have the visual representation of the library going up in flames as he talks about the indescribable qualities of grief? Perfect.
We transition to the burned down mansion. The children look around in shock as Mr. Poe coughs away. The shot pans across the grandfather clock, which makes me think that the toast coming out of it earlier probably also deserved a foreshadowing gif.
Mr. Poe is again too cheery for what the situation calls for. He tries to assure them that they have nothing to worry about because their parents left them a lot of money, which they will get when Violet comes of age. Until then, they will stay with the guardian or guardians the executors decide. Sunny spies something intact among the wreckage. It appears to be some sort of eyepiece, but as Klaus handles it, the bottom portion breaks off. The top portion has that swirl, the markings we originally saw on the trap door leading into the Baudelaire mansion. Before Klaus can figure out what he’s looking at, Mr. Poe indicates that it’s time to go.
Mr. Poe lets the children know that they’ll be coming to his house in the meanwhile, which “won’t be so bad.” We cut there during dinner time. The food is awful, Mr. Poe’s kids are fighting, and Mrs. Poe is super happy about the fact that she made the Baudelaires front page news, thanks to losing everything including their parents. (A: Mrs. Poe is the worst.) Mr. Poe is pleased to find that he’s also mentioned in the story as a generous and prominent member of the banking community. As the Poes start to argue over how to spell promotion, Klaus speaks up and says he isn’t hungry. He asks to go to their rooms. Mr. Poe chokes and is all… roomS?
We cut to the Poes saying goodnight to their children with high fives. In that same room, the Baudelaires are sharing a single cot. Mrs. Poe gets the children to say that they feel terrible and miss their parents very much, but only so that she can use it for a headline. (A: See? The worst.) The Poes leave with more assurances that the children are welcome but shouldn’t touch anything. Once alone, one of the Poe Kids asks the Baudelaires how they set the fire. They can’t even manage an answer to that.
Outside, Lemony tells us that one Poe brother went into banking and the other lives in a cave and talks to sheep and each think the other has it better. The Baudelaire’s fate was still worse.
Samantha: I wonder how far into the future Lemony is talking to us from. I wonder so much about this story.
Mari: Definitely a good sign about what the story is creating.
The next morning, Mr. Poe rushes the children out of the house as he’s found them a guardian. Mrs. Poe looks happily over the newspaper that was delivered, as it features the very headline she threatened the children with. In the car, Mr. Poe explains that this new guardian is an actor who lives just 3 miles away, which is great because their parents wanted the children to live with their closest living relative. Klaus can’t imagine that Mr. Poe really thinks that’s what that means. Violet wonders why they’ve never met this supposed distant cousin if he lives so close but Mr. Poe is basically like IT’LL BE FINE, which is something I believe we should get used to from Mr. Poe.
We cut to the children meeting Justice Strauss (A: Joan Freaking Cusack!). She’s a cheery woman who babbles on about how she can’t shake their hands because her own are full of parcels. The long and short of it is that she needs help fixing something, some help with her personal library and help cutting something. How fortuitous, for those are the strengths of the very same children before her. Unfortunately, Justice Strauss is just the front door neighbor of Count Olaf, their real guardian. We turn to look at his house and it’s basically the entire house representation of The Basement of Don’t Go in There.
Samantha: Is this a good time to mention that I am a super NPH fangirl…?
Annie: Heck yes. But I’m probably just saying that because I’m a NPH fangirl, too. We’re actually a NPH household. My husband has the hugest man crush on NPH.
Mari: They ring the doorbell and Netflix captions helpfully tell use that we hear a doorbell chiming a spooky melody. Way to telegraph, Count Olaf.
The ring and wait, as Count Olaf is real busy looking ominously out from his tower. He hears the bell on the second ring and hurries off to answer. The children can hear him as he practices different ways of saying hello. A beat later, he swings open the door and greets the orphans, inviting them and their vast fortune to enter. The kids look him up and down and note a tattoo on his ankle– the same swirling design that now more properly looks like an eye. They enter the rundown house as Count Olaf makes even more comments about their many monies. Mr. Poe clarifies that all that money is locked away until Violet comes of age. Olaf growls at this and basically pushes Mr. Poe out of the house.
They sit on their single cot. Klaus despairs, but Violet tries to cheer him up by assuring him they can survive this. Of course as soon as she says this, Olaf is back with a bucket and mop. We cut to a nasty bathroom the children are meant to clean with toothbrushes Olaf also says they’ll use to brush their teeth. I truly don’t want toothbrush trauma to become a thing in Truamaland, but here we are.
Annie: The whole house is creepy and germy AF. And I’m a germaphobe, so the whole toothbrush thing really makes my skin crawl. No thank you please.
Mari: The doorbell rings. Olaf tells them to keep quiet. Justice Strauss is at the door.
The children have finished their chore list, but Olaf tells them there’s one more thing to do: prepare a large dinner for his entire theater troupe. They don’t know how to make dinner and don’t have money. Olaf hands over a greasy coin pouch and tells them to figure it out.
The children decide to go to Justice Strauss for help. She’s kind of wary of them now and makes comments about how much they must be used to in their old life, obviously having taken what the creepy man with a spooky doorbell says at face value. (S: The adults in this story are…not great? Even the good ones?) Still, Strauss lets the kids use her personal library, which is very large and very magnificent. (A: #LibraryEnvy.) She starts to get a little warmer towards the children when they tell her as much.
Klaus pulls the mysterious eye-piece thing from his pocket and Justice Strauss is intrigued. She takes a look at it and says there is a faint bell ringing somewhere.
They move on, though, and start looking for cookbooks. Violet finds a promising recipe. Justice Strauss is pulling down a big book. It appears to be The Incomplete History of Secre… something. Secrets. Secret Handshakes. Secretaries. Secret Societies. It’s a secret for now because Justice Strauss gets distracted when Violet asks if there is a grocery store near by. There isn’t, but there is an open air market and gin distillery.
Justice Strauss goes with the children on the rickety trolley to the market, though she spends most of the time talking about how nice it is that they are cooking for their new family. They pass the Briny Beach and look out over it sadly. We even see the skipping stone Violet dropped when she heard the news of her parent’s death. Justice Strauss sees their sadness and tells them that cooking for family is a mitzvah. She asks them if they know what that is– the first person to do so. The first person to ask and not assume they don’t know. I think this officially makes her a Good Person. The children, for once, don’t know this word and she tells them it’s a blessing. They deserve the blessing of a new family with Count Olaf and maybe even her. The Baudelaires smile at her.
We cut to the children getting back to Olaf’s mansion with their purchases. They enter and a whole musical number about Count Olaf starts up. The brilliant lyrics include, “it’s the count, it’s the count, it’s the count,” and an acrostic with n standing for knowledge. At the end, the Baudelaires give the Count the appropriate WTF looks. He expects applause, and says as much. The most Klaus does is bang together the two grocery bags he has in his hand. (S: Bless, this was a great small thing.) Count Olaf tells them his troupe is working on something big and also would like their dinner ASAP. Sunny babbles at him, which Olaf doesn’t like at all, and Violet translates that it’ll be ready shortly. His troupe says they could wait patiently or have some wine. Olaf agrees to a box of Merlot.
In the kitchen, Lemony narrates the dinner-making process. The children all work together, slicing, cooking, and using their special powered teeth to make a dinner to be proud of, especially because it involves homemade pasta like wtf is up with that overachieving nonsense. (S: Lol, Overachieving Nonsense *is* the Baudelaires.) Cooking brightens their spirits to the point where Violet says maybe they can make this their home. They remember what their father once said when he burnt quesadillas: better than nothing.
At the dinner table, Olaf yells for dinner and the children come right out with their pasta and sauce. They serve while he speechifies and I honestly pay like zero attention to him because I’m watching the children serve pasta? I’m not sure if that’s what the episode intends for your eye, but my eye is just drawn to the pasta. What can I do?
Annie: I was thinking about Violet carrying Sunny all the time. I’m certain that sometimes she’s holding a stand-in doll while shooting, but it’s distracting to me thinking about this teenager carrying this baby around all the time. Babies can be heavy, and I’m an adult. So I can only imagine what it’s like for a teenager to carry around a one-year-old. Anyway. These are the things I think about.
Mari: I definitely thought of that as well, especially as I was searching Tumblr for gifs and saw Malina Weissman holding Presley Smith at the premiere too. No breaks.
Anyhow, Olaf asks where the roast beef is and the children are like, “what even” because they made pasta puttanesca and there is no roast beef. He tells them that the guests can barely stomach the pasta, and they all spit out the pasta, but only for a second because it’s so good they are eating it again the next time we cut to them. Olaf gets in Klaus’s face and tells him that as their new father, he is not someone to be trifled with. Olaf grabs Sunny and holds her up above his head. Everyone is worried but then he just puts Sunny down on a fruit plate and pushes her down the table.
The guests are still shoveling pasta, but Olaf announces that it’s time to go. He leaves the kids with another list of chores, after which they are to go to their beds. Klaus corrects him; there is only one bed. Olaf tells them that if they want another bed, they are to buy one with all their lucky orphan fortune. Klaus tells him he knows perfectly well they can’t use that money and gets slapped IN THE FACE for his trouble. Everyone gasps. (S: My mom gasped too. This is a BAD DUDE, y’all.) (A: REALLY bad. This was hard to see. Ugh.) Olaf drunkenly tells them it’s time to go to the theater. Violet rushes to her brother and asks if he’s alright. He tells her that this isn’t in fact better than nothing.
Mari: It’s amazing how much that has applied throughout this post.
We cut to the Baudelaires in their attic room, on their small cot, staring up at the roof. Lemony tells us that there are a lot of things that are better than nothing: a home cooked meal is better than nothing. A roof over one’s head is better than nothing. A place to sleep, even if it is small and the blanket is damp with tears, is better than nothing. We pan outside where Lemony stands and address us, telling us that being raised by a sinister man is not better than nothing. And the Baudelaire children will soon discover that there are things you cannot change, even after a long night of introspection. Lemony looks across the street. Justice Strauss is in her library reading a book about adoption law. Above her head, the Incomplete History of Secret… [Handshakes] is still sticking out.
Tunnel. There are helpful directional signs down there. (S: *quietly screaming*)
Lemony ends by telling us that he’s as dedicated as ever to investigating the Baudelaire story, no matter what happens to him. “Trouble and strife can cover this world like the dark of night or like smoke from a suspicious fire. And when that happens… all true and good people know that it’s time to volunteer.” Talk about a motto for 2017, y’all.
Mari: The episode ends with two well-dressed people in the back of a mini-bus, chained together. The woman says she’s worried about the children. The man says he is too. They need to get out of here. The woman looks out and asks, “what’s that thing that Einstein said?”
And everyone who read the books just when WHAT IN THE ADAPTATION HECK IS GOING ON HERE?
Annie: Me after that scene:
Mari: I don’t know what, friends. But what’s that thing that James Brown said? “And I feel nice like sugar and spice. I feel nice like sugar and spice. So nice, so nice, I got you.” That doesn’t apply here at all, but James Brown DID say it. (S: Oh my god I love you.)
I think this was a great pilot overall. The story as a whole, which I haven’t revisited since I was in my teens, really does change for me as an adult. I honestly spent most of this episode dying for anyone to be a responsible adult, but I think that’s the suspension of disbelief here. Just put aside all expectations of reasonableness; take the parent out of parenting. The threat adults post on children, their unquestioned ability to rule their lives, really is at the forefront of this story and that certainly comes across here.
I loved the way the series has decided to include Lemony Snicket’s strong narrative voice. It’s adaptation magic to have him weaving in and out of the scenes, deadpanning his delivery, never acknowledged by the characters, and both sincere and detached all at once.
And on that note, I enjoyed Warburton very much and all of the other actors a fair amount. I’m not sure that I was blown away by anything in particularly, but they were solid performances all around. Neil Patrick Harris’s Count Olaf will be interesting to watch throughout the series. It’s such an over the top character that’s also supposed to be the main menace. It can be difficult to see him that way as he’s prancing around singing about theater and bank accounts. And yet, the moment he spins and slaps Klaus, you really are brought to the reality here: this is not a good dude. Not at all, not for once second.
Samantha: I really enjoyed it too. I don’t really have anything to add cause you said all my thoughts. This is the story from the perspective of kids when every adult fails them. When it’s all up to them. Also, yeah, entire existential crisis at the veer from the books ending. I totally panicked haha. HOPEFULLY IT’S AN OKAY CHANGE.
Annie: This pilot really has me wanting to go back and re-read the books. SO BADLY. I enjoyed the casting, the sets are just beautifully crafted and I agree with Mari, I totally love how they did the narration.
I’m still not over that surprise at the end… and what the what with the casting of Mother and Father: Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett? I do hope we get to see them more later on. I can’t wait to see where they’re going with this.
Next time on A Series of Unfortunate Events: Olaf casts the orphans in The Marvelous Marriage in S01 E02 – The Bad Beginning Part 2.