Netflix has recently began to adapt the best-selling children’s book series A Series of Unfortunate Events (written by author Daniel Handler under the penname of Lemony Snicket), in the form of a series dividing each book into two episodes. The first season was released on the streaming service on Jan. 13 (a Friday, of course) and brings the series’ first four books (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill) to life.
For the uninitiated, the series tells the stories of the Baudelaire orphans, Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith). The trio learn of their parents’ deaths in a fire that destroyed their entire home at the beginning of the story are are soon off to live with the first of many seemingly unknown relatives. Unfortunately, that relative is the wicked and devilishly wacky Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), who turns into the main antagonist of the series.
As the title would allude, the Baudelaires have a rather rough time adjusting to life without their parents. After Olaf loses custody of the children due to a scheme to steal their inheritance, they are sent to new guardians, with Olaf always on their tails ready to use any disguise to infiltrate their lives. These schemes often don’t bode well for the guardians in his way, as they often end up dead just as things are looking up for the children.
While this may seem like a silly, repetitive premise for a series, there’s one thing that sets Unfortunate Events apart from any other show on TV or streaming platforms: the tone. The tone of the series (which is perfectly in line with the novels) is grim and storybook-esque. Everything’s a bit gothic and feels more like a play than a TV show. This is thanks to production designer Bo Welch (who also directs two episodes). Welch brings his fantastical visions to life just as he did on the Tim Burton classics Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. It’s a visually unique look fit for a uniquely melancholy series.
Adding to the tone is the narration by Patrick Warburton, who tells the story as Snicket. His signature vocals serve as the perfect guide into the desolate tale. Just as in the novels, Snicket will step into the story and advise readers to look away and do something else with their time, as the story is far too depressing for anyone to experience. It’s an odd, theatrical storytelling device, but it’s an effective one.
While the visual presentation and narrative are the backbone of the show, the performances hold their own. Specifically, Harris’ Olaf is the driving force of the show. He had big shoes to fill, not only because Olaf himself plays various characters within the story, but also because he was replacing Jim Carrey, who portrayed the villain in the series’ 2004 film adaptation. While Carrey is a joy to watch, Harris feels more true to the character and less of a zany caricature.
He’s simultaneously evil and whimsical, with just enough edge to be sinister. When it comes time for him to go into disguise, he sells it. Whether it’s as an elderly sea captain or as a female optometrist’s secretary, Harris’ inner showman comes out and really goes for it.
While Harris is a scene-stealer, the rest of the cast hold their own. The children are able to hold scenes right alongside their experienced adult counterparts. The aforementioned adults are also a joy to watch in their supporting roles. Catherine O’Hara’s hypnotist Georgina Orwell, Aasif Mandvi’s herpetologist Uncle Monty and Joan Cusack’s Justice Strauss are particular high points, with each selling their fun, often dimwitted characters. While they each are only onscreen for brief periods of time, they often give each episode a breath of fresh air.
While all the pieces of A Series of Unfortunate Events are strong, the mesh of oddball narrative and characters can be off-putting for the uninitiated. While the beginning can be bit challenging to get through, once the cavalcade of guest actors come into play and the children get the room to grow away from Olaf, it’s much more enjoyable.
It may be a not-so-pleasant watch for older viewers unfamiliar with the source material. However, younger viewers with an eye for the unusual will eat it up, as well as the original fans of the book series.