Prescient: Why the Netflix Version of A Series of Unfortunate Events is a Trump-Era Time Capsule
Each night my husband and I switch off between our two kids when it comes to reading. Since one kid is 6 and one is 9, this allows for a bit of variety. And when my husband decided he’d tackle all thirteen books of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, I wished him well. Once done, my daughter was curious about seeing a filmed version of the books. As she is unaware of the Jim Carrey take (I plan on breaking that one out when the kids are jaded teens so that we may mock it properly as a family) that meant that we’d instead take a deep dive into the Netflix adaptation of the series.
Now I’ve been a fan of the book series for a long time. I’m the kind of jaded parent that, upon hearing the theme song of the show, finds herself wishing for some Gothic Archies to start playing instead. But the series had a lot of nice little touches. I liked the cast and the fact that Claus actually wore glasses on the show (I’ll stop jabbing at the movie now). I liked the way the show tapped into that strange historical/contemporary vibe. Cold War chic? Perhaps. But the more we watched, the more I began to realize something strange. A Series of Unfortunate Events, if nothing else, is a playbook for children growing up with a President Donald Trump.
The bleakness would probably be your first clue. If you’ve read the books then you know that the warnings at their start aren’t mincing words. To combat this, to some extent, the show has added an additional cast of VFD spies that are trying to help the Baudelaire orphans behind the scenes. They are, of course, completely ineffective in their efforts. No one halfway decent who helps them lives for long. Those that do live often make things worse. Still, knowing that there are kind adults lurking somewhere, even if they’re completely incompetent, is a sort of balm to the child watcher.
Even so, consider the central conceit of the show: A ludicrous, bombastic flim-flam man bamboozles the idiotic adults around him while the children (both in the show and watching it) wonder why it’s so hard to stop this guy. Seriously, how hard can it be to call him out on his lies? And yet time after time the grown-ups are willing to follow his lead. Mobs of adults are a hallmark of the show, blindly following a villain that is both funny and frightening.
The funny and frightening thing is also very interesting to me. I’ve seen this kind of thing work in children’s entertainment before. In the musical version of Matilda, for example, it’s taken to a veritable extreme with Miss Trunchbull who is both deeply funny and deeply disturbed. Neil Patrick Harris does something similar with his Count Olaf. The threat level is always kept very high, but at the same time no one could ever say that Olaf is competent. And yet all sorts of people follow him blindly because he tells them precisely what they want to hear.
And so, you have your three child heroes acting like three Alices in a Wonderland where the adults around them push them about, often without rhyme or reason. The kids are a solid center in a madcap universe, and their entire job is to get through it together and intact.
Trump is no longer president but for my children his term of office took up a large chunk of their childhood. If they heard the current news reports, and it happened, they’d often wonder why the adults, who were ostensibly supposed to protect them, let a madman lead large groups of people astray. Some theories surrounding A Series of Unfortunate Events is that it is very much a post-Holocaust series. Grown-ups will let you down, kids, so read everything and keep your brains working. That may be true of the books, but for the Netflix series the lesson feels a little more contemporary.
When I was in graduate school, getting my library degree, I would read academic children’s literature periodicals for fun. Almost all of them would discuss old books by dead authors, but there were rare exceptions to this. A Series of Unfortunate Events seemed to capture those academics’ interest, and they’d spend long hours writing about how it applied to the larger scope of kidlit (a term they’d burn me alive for writing here). As such, plenty has been written on the matter. The series ended on Netflix about a year ago. I’ve had adult friends tell me that they started watching it but found it too bleak to carry on with. So when we look back on this era, I wonder how much of our children’s entertainment will so perfectly reflect the times in which we live. Because certainly the last four years had all the hallmarks of a series of events that you could rank right up there as unfortunate. To say the least.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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