When author Daniel Handler spoke to Inverse about the inherent difficulty in adapting his Lemony Snicket novels to television, he said “a commitment to literature is always a challenge.” Is the culture of binging streaming TV philosophically opposed to reading books? Because if so, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is the first highly bingeable streaming TV show with a very vocal and guilty conscience.
At the beginning of every single episode, Neil Patrick Harris sings directly to the audience and tells them to “look away.” This joke is a direct tribute to the way meta-author Lemony Snicket advised readers to stop reading each of the original novels. In the books, with false earnestness, Snicket would recommend you read a different book, which now has been modified for the medium of streaming television. In the seventh episode of the Netflix series, Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) gets probably his best warning: “If you like stories about children who enjoy pleasant rides in truck beds on their way to colorful destinations where they finally solve the curious mysteries plaguing their lives, that story is streaming elsewhere.”
But the show doesn’t just joke about watching other stuff on Netflix. There is constant criticism about the medium of streaming TV as a whole. If author Daniel Handler believes streaming TV could rot our brains, some of his characters trumpet that message, too. In the second episode, Count Olaf says, “As an actor I think live theatre is a much more powerful medium than say…streaming television.” Because Olaf is the villain, and his theatrical talents are questionable, this cuts both ways. Olaf dissing streaming TV could read as mocking anti-TV snobs just as much as it could be interpreted as the show being critical of its own medium.
Still, streaming subscription services like Netflix generally want people to consume more of their product. And that ussually relies on keeping certain plot details a secret. In the third episode, Neil Patrick Harris’s opening song tells the viewer, “Spoiler alert, a villain comes to plot and steal and murder, so if I were you, I wouldn’t even watch one minute further.” The medium of streaming TV is being mocked for sure, but the true target here is the way people talk about shows. Because the entire plot of a show’s season is available more quickly in the streaming model, worries about spoilers have become almost fanatical to the point of absurdity. But, in a move worthy of Kurt Vonnegut, A Series of Unfortunate Events just “ruins” the plot for you, and then dares you to keep on watching.
Superficially, this might seem counterintuitive, because on some level, it kind of is. But the popularity of the Snicket books — and the show — don’t rely on logical explanations. Faithfully adapting these books in the first place was a pretty hefty gamble; one made even more subversive by the constant reiteration that show not be worth watching. If the crazy plot twists are mostly ruined and the characters unpleasant, why would an audience member who isn’t already in on the joke get into this show? The answer might seem elusive, but it is there. The reason the seemingly antithetical “look away” strategy actually draws viewers in is because it demonstrates the show’s core honesty. A Series of Unfortunate Events is so confident in its story, it doesn’t even need to bait an audience into watching. Plot twists might happen, but in this show, those twists will be earned.
In the eighth and final episode of the first season, Count Olaf dishes out his best insult to popular television at large. “My plots were simple and straightforward and didn’t involve any high-concept science fiction gimmicks.” In context, Olaf was actually talking about “evil plots,” and not necessarily the written “plots” of certain other streaming TV shows. But it’s still true in the other context, too. The vast majority of the plots in all of A Series of Unfortunate Events don’t rely on gimmicks. These are creative stories with great characters. In fact, the stories are so compelling, it can even spoil its own ending, and no one would stop watching. And with that, maybe Lemony Snicket is asking a more interesting question: If a spoiler can’t actually spoil anything, does it even exist?