A Series of Unfortunate Events isn't set in a clear time and place. The Baudelaire children are American, but they exist in a fictional realm. Yet, that didn't stop the Netflix adaptation from having pop culture references in A Series of Unfortunate Events. While some of these nods were from the original book series by Daniel Handler (working under the pseudonym of the story's narrator Lemony Snicket), others were added in just for the Netflix series.
Calling the references that occur in A Series of Unfortunate Events strictly "pop culture" is inaccurate since the book series turned TV series goes beyond mentions of mainstream media. The Netflix show mixes subtle commentary on modern politics, conversations about literary works, and quotations from some of the greatest minds into the story of the Baudelaire orphans. Within Lemony Snicket's Netflix world, there is a fair amount of rule breaking when it comes to storytelling — after all, Patrick Warburton as Lemony references television executives and Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf breaks the fourth wall. And this matches Lemony Snicket's book world since his trademark is inserting his own commentary and warnings into the tale of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. So, the Netflix adaptation mixing in more modern references worked with the quirky and tongue-in-cheek nature of this very unfortunate series.
As the A Series of Unfortunate Events books are full of literary allusions, it should be no surprise that such references exist in the Netflix show. However, as this list will prove, the series from Netflix surely (Shirley?) enjoyed incorporating some other modern touches as well.
The Baudelaires are evidently fans of James Brown's music. After asking about an Albert Einstein quote (more on that in a bit), Violet asked Klaus, "And what's that thing James Brown said?" He responded, "I got somethin' that makes me want to shout." Lemony Snicket jumped in and added, "I got somethin' that tells me what it's all about." These are lyrics from Brown's song "Super Bad," which you may have realized when Violet and Klaus exclaimed, "I'm super bad!" after their rock-skipping experiment was successful. Violet asked about Brown again at Count Olaf's house and the despicable man replied with, "I feel good!" — another Brown song.
Count Olaf alluded to Cinderella when he told the Baudelaire orphans that they could go to the ballroom when they were done cleaning the bathroom. Harris' delivery of the line was most definitely a reference to the fairy tale character.
3The City's Shops
While the main city where the episodes dedicated to The Bad Beginning doesn't have a name or a supermarket, Justice Strauss did note that it has a local open air market and gin distillery. How practical! This seemed like a lighthearted jab at hipster towns in a post-Portlandia world.
I promised that I would speak of the renowned physicist again and so I am since Einstein is obviously a big influence on the Baudelaires. Besides Violet asking about him in Episode 1, Cobie Smulders' Mother character also asked about him. In Episode 2, Violet finally quoted Einstein — even though she didn't explicitly credit him — when she said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."
5The Hourglass Bought Online
Count Olaf threatened the kids that once the sand in the hourglass ran out, Violet would be married to him in Episode 2. Yet, Olaf didn't realize sand ran through the hourglass in just a few seconds since he bought it online. Should have read the product reviews, Count Olaf.
6Thurgood Marshall & Ida B. Wells
These aren't necessarily "modern" references, but Klaus' legal argument to ensure his sister wouldn't be legally married to Count Olaf had all of "apocryphal insight" of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and "moral aplomb" of early civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. Philosopher John Locke also received a shoutout in this Episode 2 scene and Klaus and Justice Strauss quoted Martin Luther King Jr. when they stated, "Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless."
7Streaming Long-Form TV
The references to streaming long-form television added a meta and modern touch to the Netflix series. Count Olaf made sure to criticize the exact thing viewers were watching when he said, "Well, as an actor, I think live theater is a much more powerful medium, than say, streaming television" in Episode 2. Then, while disguised as Stefano in Episode 3, he gave a positive review of TV in comparison to movies when he said, "In all honesty, I prefer long-form television to the movies. It's so much more convenient to consume entertainment from the comfort of your home." Even Aunt Josephine mentioned watching "on-screen entertainment" in Episode 6 and Lemony said in Episode 7 that a happy story was streaming elsewhere.
Dr. Montgomery Montgomery said his dissonant tortoises are only soothed by the music of early Sonic Youth and Russian composer Alexander Scriabin in Episode 3. Just look at them chilling out with their headphones on! I'm pretty certain those tortoises are cooler than me. Plus, they are a lot less destructive than another reptile in Uncle Monty's Reptile Room — the Virginian Wolfsnake — which was a reference that should delight literary fans since it's a play on Virginia Woolf's name and is also from the original A Series of Unfortunate Events books.
In Episode 4, Count Olaf told one of his henchman that he doesn't care that he has an audition for Equus, that he must come to Monty's house. Although the play was written in the 1970s, Daniel Radcliffe helped to bring Equus back into the spotlight in the 2000s since the Harry Potter actor appeared fully nude in it on New York's Broadway and in London's Westend. The Broadway revival was nominated for a couple of Tonys in 2009 when none other than Harris hosted the awards show.
Yet again, this was not specifically modern, but many notable authors were mentioned in A Series of Unfortunate Events with Herman Melville's Moby-Dick getting a significant amount of love. The taxi driver from Lachrymose Lake loved to discuss Moby-Dick with the Baudelaires — and even referenced Henry David Thoreau in his assessment of the novel. Thornton Wilder and Haruki Murakami also were spoken of in the two The Wide Window episodes.
11The School Voucher System
In a quick aside in Episode 6, Count Olaf (disguised as Captain Sham) discussed how he'd handle the education of the Baudelaire children with Mr. Poe. He told an intrigued Mr. Poe that he was a big fan of the school voucher system. Donald Trump nominee Betsy DeVos plans on making the school voucher program a priority as Secretary of Education under Trump's administration. As the voucher system is often seen as a negative to public school advocates and Harris was a Hillary Clinton supporter, it can be assumed the evil Count Olaf feeling favorably toward vouchers was a political statement. Another political reference in this scene? Mr. Poe yells at the kids for their McCarthyesque — as in Joe McCarthy's radical anti-communist activities during the Red Scare — accusations.
12Paltryville's Hipster Days
The Paltryville in Episodes 7 and 8 was quite a sad town, but Charles at the Lucky Smells Lumbermill mentioned that it used to be booming with a world market and two hot yoga studios. Apparently though, Paltryville was poised to sellout since before the town fire, there were talks of a water park.
13'The Great Gatsby'
The literary references didn't end at The Wide Window episodes since Klaus noted in Episode 7 how the eye building for Dr. Orwell's practice (which had been the headquarters of the Baudelaire's secret society before then) was reminiscent of the eyes in The Great Gatsby. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic book, there is a billboard featuring a large pair of eyes for Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. As Klaus explained, the eyes on the billboard represent the eyes of God judging society.
14Free Health Care
Any conversation about health care nowadays is a politically-charged one, so Sir's comment that, "There's nothing villainous about free health care" in Episode 8 was not so innocent. Mother Jones reported that Sir actor Don Johnson donated to Barack Obama's campaign in 2012, so maybe this was a very timely nod to Republicans promising to repeal Obamacare.
While the story of the Baudelaires in Season 1 of A Series of Unfortunate Events was quite dreadful, at least these modernish references were fun to spot for viewers.