Almost 20 years since the publication of “The Bad Beginning” and 13 years (a fittingly unlucky figure) since its film adaptation, Netflix has given Lemony Snicket’s book series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” new life. All eight episodes of the first season were released on Jan. 13.
Filled with incredible actors, breathtaking set designs and an engaging plot infused with humor and melancholy, the new show is everything fans could have hoped for after all this time.
More than that, it’s chock full of Jewish references thanks to the mysterious man behind the miserable manuscripts, Lemony Snicket, who has more of a background in Yiddishkeit than one might think.
Lemony Snicket is the pseudonym of author Daniel Handler, 46, a native and resident of San Francisco. His stories chronicle the wild woes of the Baudelaire orphans Violet, Klaus and Sunny who, after the death of their parents in the fiery destruction of their mansion, are shunted from one legal guardian to the next over the course of 13 books.
All the while, they’re pursued by the dastardly, costume-shifting villain Count Olaf (played by Neil Patrick Harris in the show), who is after the enormous fortune the Baudelaire parents left behind.
The world of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a place where adults are grossly incompetent and can’t see deadly danger staring them directly in the face. It’s a suburban gothic universe filled with secrets, devoid of justice … and popping with nods to Judaism. Not such a far-fetched idea when you take into account the seemingly endless suffering and, dare I say it, unfortunate events endured by the Jewish people over the centuries.
Handler was willing to discuss such events, as well as the new show’s Jewish influences, what we can expect in Season 2 and his attempts to teach Hollywood to speak Yiddish.
Josh Weiss: Could you start off by telling me a little bit about your Jewish background growing up?
Daniel Handler: I had a fairly standard Reform Jewish upbringing, I guess, in terms of the religious side of it. On the cultural side, my father’s family fled Germany in 1938 and 1939 and some of them made it and some of them didn’t. So I grew up with a close-knit group of actually fairly distant relatives who were all survivors of — I mean, they weren’t all survivors of camps by any means — but they were all survivors of getting out of Germany just in time. And I was fed by stories of how good behavior is not necessarily rewarded and bad behavior is not necessarily punished, so I think that shaped my worldview.
And how did your Jewish upbringing eventually find its way into your writing, specifically when it came to relaying the unpleasant plight of the Baudelaires?
Well, I’ve always thought that “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is basically a Jewish story. Certainly I’ve heard from readers all over the world who have found themselves in its pages, and so I never like to identify everyone as being Jewish or something like that, but I think the kind of wry but soulful look at suffering comes from a long tradition of Jewish literature.
Whose idea was it for those [Jewish] themes and concepts to carry over into the show — for example, Justice Strauss bringing up the concept of a mitzvah or the Marvelous Marriage band playing “Hava Nagila”?
I guess it was my idea … but I think it was an idea that people took to. So, some of the references, the Jewish references, are mine and then some of them were invented by other people and inspired from my doing that.
Was there ever any worry on the part of the show producers that some of the references might go over the heads of viewers?
I would say not specifically the Jewish references necessarily. There are a lot of literary references, too, so I think the biggest argument we had with Netflix was over [Jean Antheime] Brillat-Savarin, the 19th-century French gourmand and philosopher, who’s not Jewish but is also obscure. But I think there was a sense that we could inscribe a language that was being spoken by the characters that — even if it wasn’t understood for what it was — was understood for being part of a world that was slightly Jewish in tone. If you don’t know what a bar mitzvah is, you still have a sense that people are talking about something. And I think, you know, most people by now know what a bar mitzvah is.
If you had to compare “A Series of Unfortunate Events” to a particular cornerstone, idea or story in the Jewish faith, what would it be?
I guess those stories of my own family and the stories that I heard around the dinner table and at family gatherings would be the ones that sunk in deep enough for me. I was always confused and haunted by the story of the [binding and] sacrifice of Isaac, for sure, but I think just about any traditional Jewish story is going to have crazy suffering in it, so I liked all of them.
Can we count on more nods to Judaism popping up next season, and can you offer up any hints or clues?
Yeah, we’re writing Season 2 now and there are certainly plenty of Jewish references. We had a conversation about the word tsuris and what that meant, so I guess that would be enough of a hint. It’s a [Yiddish] word for kind of trouble and bad luck and suffering. You would have to have something of a Yiddish sense to know how to use it, so we use it a few times in one episode, and I was trying to explain to people what it means exactly — and that’s so with many Yiddish terms. Once you start explaining it, you realize that you don’t really know. You can use it in context, and you know when the context is wrong, you know when it’s being used incorrectly, but it’s actually hard to define. So that was a nice day.
Is there anything in forthcoming seasons that you’re looking forward to revisiting in the scripts or see come alive on screen — like a certain book or moment?
Oh gosh, I mean, I’m working so hard on that now that it’s kind of all of them. We’ve been working on the operating scene in “The Hostile Hospital.” I’m excited about that. We’ve been working on some of the scenes in “The Vile Village.” I’m quite proud of the Cafe Salmonella scene that’s happening in “Ersatz Elevator,” so there’s a lot.
And it’s been really marvelous to write the second season when we know who the main cast actors are, too. We had to write Season 1 kind of in a vacuum and then change it as the actors came into fruition. But now just to know who’s playing Mr. Poe and just to know what kind of lines [actor] K. Todd Freeman is really good at and to write them is a really fun time.
Are there any plans to turn [your children’s book] “The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming” into a movie or TV show?
[Laughing] Not that I’m aware of … It’s been presented on the stage a few times. Just about every holiday season, some Jewish theater company or other is putting it on, and that always charms me. I like the idea of someone in a latke costume onstage.
Do you have any thoughts or a message for fans who are returning to the series after such a long time?
I hope whatever trauma they had the first time has passed and I’m worried for any [traumatizing] experience in the future.