Unfortunately uneven but still includes great episodes.
A Series of Unfortunate Events Season 2 starts out on the wrong foot. Even though Season 1 mixed melancholic monologues, heartwarming caretakers who met ill fates, and ridiculous yet delightful Neil Patrick Harris performances to great effect, its rinse-and-repeat formula of the Baudelaire orphans outrunning Count Olaf began to feel a little overdone by the season’s end.
Season 2’s first two episodes, based on the fifth ASOUE book, The Austere Academy, fit too much into this mold. While it’s been more than a year since I watched the first batch of episodes, a sense of familiarity immediately overcame me as the Baudelaires’ time at Prufrock Prepatory school carried on. But as the season progresses, thanks to the introduction of a few key characters and episodes that deepen the lore of the Baudelaires’ lives, overall Season 2 ends up capturing the magic of Season 1 while transforming the shape and flow of the show.
Although the first two installments feel a little too familiar, they do inject one key aspect of the season that offers it both a driving force and plenty of enjoyable fodder to distract from the predictable flow of plot: Enter Jacques Snicket, played with pitch-perfect timing and swagger by Nathan Fillion. Jacques belongs to VFD, a mysterious organization at the heart of Unfortunate Events’ central mysteries, to which the Baudelaires’ parents belonged.
On his own mission, Jacques introduces the viewer, and another key cast member best left unspoiled, to the world of VFD and its role in the Baudelaires’ lives. Jacques only makes a brief appearance in the book series, but his presence here is a welcome addition early on, injecting a much-needed extra layer to the mythology that the series really begins to explore once outside the confines of Prufrock.
(I truly can’t speak highly enough of Fillion’s role as Jacques. Though often brief in his appearances, Fillion leaves an indelible mark on the franchise. His energy and vocal cadence perfectly match the eccentricities of the world while also offering plot development that a singular focus on the Baudelaire orphans couldn’t have provided this early on.)
And that leads us to The Ersatz Elevator, a two-parter that, while still adhering to the formula, truly shows signs of an evolution for the series. Count Olaf makes a surprisingly early appearance under his latest guise, Gunther, which offers a nice shift of the status quo, as it immediately throws Violet, Klaus, and Sunny for a loop. The Ersatz’s art deco modern aesthetic delivers a bright, alternative sheen to the otherwise drab and gray locations seen in the series so far.
And Lucy Punch joins the show as Esmé Squalor in a Cruella De Vil-esque turn at the center of an arc I won’t spoil but that absolutely adds another dimension to the season, preventing certain aspects from feeling entirely rote.
Because of these twists, Ersatz firmly shifts the show from a narrative where the Baudelaires are running from a trap to one in which they’re running toward a brighter future. There’s a sense of hope that not only permeates The Ersatz Elevator, but the season as a whole. It’s partially because of Tony Hale’s heartwarming performance as guardian Jerome Squalor. But it’s also the combination of the Baudelaires’ more active role, Jacques’ mission, and the revelations about VFD that imbue Season 2 with the idea that the three orphans may finally escape their misfortune.
Unsurprisingly, these events are not yet over (we’ve got one more season to tie things up), and so with every step made toward a brighter future, the Baudelaires remain unfortunate to the very end, though in largely entertaining ways. The Vile Village follows Ersatz, unfortunately, for a largely forgettable two episodes, but the show returns to form with The Hostile Hospital and The Carnivorous Carnival episodes.
And as the season goes on, the mystery of VFD entangles the Baudelaires, who remain as endearing in Season 2 as they did in Season 1, in a web of deceit, lies, and double crossings. VFD offers a clear motive to some of the key players, including Neil Patrick Harris’ Olaf, who gets to be truly terrifying — and also entertaining as he demonstrates his musical chops — toward the latter half of the season.
That willingness to push the Baudelaires to the brink while simultaneously deepening our understanding of them makes up for some of the show’s shortcomings. While still intermittently witty and frequently heartwarming, the series’ penchant for wordplay doesn’t quite work as well in Season 2. Patrick Warburton’s Lemony Snicket often punctuated episodes in Season 1 with beautiful, melancholic observations. And while Warburton is still great in the role, the material never quite lives up to his delivery, or the cleverness the series showcased last year.
And so that leaves Unfortunate Events at a bit of a crossroads entering Season 3. We’ve seen the best of the show, as well as its worst. Hopefully it can put these missteps in the rearview mirror, just as the Baudelaires intend to do with Count Olaf. Season 2 undeniably brings the joys of Season 1 back to life, from the show’s gorgeous aesthetic and spectacular guest stars with an evolution of its storytelling. It just doesn’t do so as consistently as Season 1.