After viewing the first season of A Series of Unfortunate Events, I couldn’t wait to see this new batch of episodes. The show has continued to improve upon the books with the help of Lemony Snicket himself, Daniel Handler. The first book of season 2, The Austere Academy, contains the most improvements of any of the books so far.
When I first read book 5 of the series, I found it a bit dull. While there are some subtle hints of changes coming, the story largely repeats the same devices from the previous four books, and on top of that, the Baudelaires have landed in their drabbest environment yet, a graveyard of a school with a focus on death. The only ray of light comes from the Baudelaires meeting the two remaining Quagmire triplets, but everything else they endure becomes part of the school’s monotonous routine. Part of the problem with reading this one comes from the device of using ridiculous routines to squeeze the energy from the orphans in hopes to cause them to fail out of the school in order for Count Olaf to become their guardian, but as Mr. Poe points out in the show, the whole endeavor is flawed.
As the first episodes of season 2begin, the first colorful improvement taps her way onto the screen. Carmelita Spats is just a black-and-white bully in the book, but in the show, she’s a terrifyingly cute girl with a pink dress and vibrant curls. She still gets the chants going in the lunch room and hurls the nonsensical “cake sniffers” insult at the orphans, but she’s become so much more. She’s the school cheerleader with the support of its tyrannical vice principal and later Count Olaf. While these things are all part of the book, they’re amped up along with everything else for the show. Carmelita’s crazy wide-eyed smiled alone is enough to make you uneasy, but she’s only one bright ingredient.
The best and brightest addition to the series is the librarian, Olivia Caliban, played by Sara Rue. In the book, the school’s library remains in the background for the Quagmire triplets to visit during some research, which they still do, but in the show, the library becomes a ray of light on a dim campus. Vice Principal Nero only allows the library to remain open for ten minutes a day, but even with such limited means, Olivia does everything she can to help the Baudelaires. Her presence is very similar to Justice Strauss in book 1, but instead of a motherly figure, Olivia is more like a cool aunt. She’s smart, sexy, and fun, and she doesn’t take any nonsense from Vice Principal Nero or Carmelita Spats. She’s one of the few characters who questions the system she finds herself in. That’s probably why she gets wrapped up in the secret organization fighting against Count Olaf, and I was very happy to see that her role continues in the episodes for book 6.
The spies have infiltrated the school lunchroom in an effort to get the book The Incomplete History of Secret Organizations into the hands of the Baudelaires, and once Count Olaf shows up, there’s even a rescue mission to save one of their operatives led by Lemony Snicket’s own brother Jacques Snicket, who’s played by Nathan Fillion. Their back and forth with Count Olaf’s team offers the series a much larger world than the paltry existence of the orphans that we get in the book, and it makes us question the narrator even more than we might in the book. Lemony definitely knows much more than he lets on. He mentions something about involvement with Count Olaf in the book and stops himself, but it is a very brief moment and not quite related to the current story.
And when Count Olaf does manage to weasel his way into Prufrock Preparatory, it takes him and his goons some effort. In the book, he just appears as he normally does, in a ridiculous costume some time after the children have noticed some mysterious figures lurking in the background in poor disguises that somehow work. He still replaces the gym teacher, but you get to see him put his dastardly plan into action. And when he does show up, he’s hilarious. He’s wearing a turban with fancy athletic shoes (high-top Adidas with wings no less), but he uses a thick Southern accent for some reason. In the book, I just assumed he went for some vague Middle Eastern impression, but the absurd combination of redneck swami pushes his antics to another level. And he’s definitely having to try a lot harder as these episodes roll on and more people become aware of his plans. You see him squirm quite a bit in this one, especially when the Baudelaires push Nero’s Olaf-detecting-computer right up to his face. He seems more human, even if he isn’t a very pleasant one.
Finally, there’s Vice Principal Nero, who comes across in quite the same way he does in the book, minus the pigtails, but Roger Bart plays him brilliantly. He’s creepy, egomaniacal, and he somehow makes the most annoying aspect of his character from the book into a funny characteristic, maybe because it’s played down. Nero’s habit of belittling the children by imitating them in a high-pitch voice went on a bit too long in the book, but onscreen, it’s just pathetic. That’s one word that definitely encapsulates Nero: pathetic. Just look at his bow strings! But with that goofy smile, you kind of love him and feel sorry for him at the same time, even though he’s a horrible person and you might like to break that violin over his head.
The culmination of all those characters first happens at the school’s pep rally, where we see the mascot of the school, which doesn’t exist in the book. With such a focus on death, and the motto Memento Mori (Remember You Will Die), there could be nothing more fitting than a dead skeletal horse. It comes onto the stage to the chant led by Carmelita, “Who can’t be beat? A dead horse,” and the men inside are promptly kicked over by the red-haired little imp right before Count Olaf bursts onto the stage.
The plans Olaf carries out are very much the same, and the children suffer the same indignities as they do in the book while they try to formulate their own plan, but the repetitive elements have been minimized for the show to make room for the added brightness. Anyone who hasn’t read the books can very much enjoy the show, and if you’re still interested in reading it, book 5 is still pretty good. But the two-part episode is like a black-and-white photo that’s had some colors added for maximum effect. Its gloom has been stylized so that the camp and horror come at you all at once, like a smile from Carmelita.