Television, a truly great and truly horrible parent
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It’s one of the hoariest premises in fiction. A person, decidedly unfit to raise and care for children, is put in charge of younglings with indisposed parents. It is the kind of set-up that birthed many a 1980s sitcom, with laugh-tracks underscoring eye-rolls, comedy built on catchphrases and numerous iterations of the words “uh oh”. This week, as I look at two new and diametrically different comedies that, coincidentally, take three young upstarts and hand over their reins to monstrously inappropriate guardians, it is clear that no cliché is too old to rejuvenate.
The Mick (streaming weekly on Hotstar) stars Kaitlin Olson as a foul-mouthed wastrel with no boundaries when it comes to drugs or lovers. She’s an angry bum given to much yelling, and this is, in many ways, an extension of the character Olson plays so well on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Yet, as the primary loon in what is ostensibly a more strait-laced show, Olson thrives in the role of an aunt who has to take charge of three immeasurably wealthy brats because their parents, on the run after tax fraud, have absconded from the country.
These children are, for the most part, atrocious, and appear to have the measure of their under-prepared Aunt Mickey till she begins to fight back. And true to the spirit of Olson’s Sweet Dee in It’s Always Sunny, Mickey doesn’t pull her punches. If the teenage girl in her care won’t use birth control, trust The Mick to poison her till she believes she’s pregnant. At some point a child swallows what is referred to as “a bad balloon”. The Bad Teacher/Bad Santa formula is certainly played out, but The Mick has enough vibrance and originality in character to make up for the hackneyed set-up, and Olson herself is spectacular at being the wrongest possible person in charge (she’s also fantastic at being shrill, which plays out better than it reads, I assure you).
Watch it if only to see how far they’ll go, which is pretty damned far.
At the other end of the spectrum stands a show that is far less sunny yet far more appropriate for all ages. Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events made its Netflix debut a fortnight ago, and is a slavishly loyal season-long adaptation of the first four books by Daniel Handler. Cleverly channelling Roald Dahl, mixed in with a bit of Edgar Allan Poe (and even a dash of Charles Dickens), the Snickets books are a rollicking marvel, exulting in the unending—and intricately, preposterously plotted—woes for their faultless protagonists.
Like all successful child-friendly franchises, the books led to a movie of the same name in 2004, directed by Brad Silberling and highlighted by a spectacular opening credits sequence and a tour de force performance from Jim Carrey as the evil Count Olaf, out to rob and harm the orphaned Baudelaire children placed under his aegis. More films, alas, did not happen.
Netflix, then, to the rescue. The show is structured very smartly, the first season made up of eight episodes—two episodes for each of the first four books in the Snicket series—and this leads to taut pacing that is both binge-worthy and deliberate, without an ounce of storytelling fat.
Jude Law was the silken-voiced narrator in the film, but Patrick Warburton proves a more inspired choice to drily wax on about the misfortunes of the Baudelaire children, crossing his legs wearing an old-time swimming costume while the children are told of their parents’ death. Who better to play a narrator devoid of expression (but not scorn) than David Puddy? Or The Tick? The Baudelaire children, cherubic and twinkly eyed and bright as polished buttons, are perfectly chosen to win us over.
The show itself is written largely in collaboration with Handler—loyalists will be pleased with the show’s sharp yet inclusive wit—and is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who made Men In Black, Get Shorty, and, perhaps most germane to this series, The Addams Family. Sonnenfeld, one of the men behind the magical Pushing Daisies, was looking forward to helming the 2004 film before plans were scuppered, and now in Netflix he seems to have found a better canvas, and the show feels more agreeable with each passing misfortune.
There is but one hiccup. The greasy and good-for-nothing Count Olaf is played here by Neil Patrick Harris, an incomparable scenery-stealer who appears perfect for the hammy role of Olaf, a theatre performer and narcissistic scoundrel, yet Harris’ eternally self-aware style renders the cold character constantly unreal. He amuses but never scares, which works fine for the tone of the series, till you contrast him with Carrey. A stunning actor whenever he draws himself to his full height, Carrey gave his Olaf a big helping of carnival buffoonery as well as a cold, brutal heart and some truly nutty savoir faire. When he wooed a weirdly miscast Meryl Streep in the film, it was hard not to root for him—while loathing him. Harris goes for broke, but doesn’t come close.
Although it is perhaps for the best that the new show isn’t already firing on every possible cylinder. It would be hard to call it Unfortunate if it were.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.