Netflix’s adaptation of A Series Unfortunate Events, much like the book series on which it is based, begins with the narrator Lemony Snicket desperately urging the audience to watch something else. If you follow Snicket’s advice, though, you will be robbed of a weird and wonderful experience. Netflix’s newest original series is a strange decision, considering the 2004 movie with Jim Carrey was never successful enough to gain a sequel and the last book in the series was published over a decade ago. Still, A Series of Unfortunate Events should manage to entice old and new fans alike as it brings to life the macabre, gothic but often hilarious world of the Baudelaire orphans.
(Don’t) Look Away
A Series of Unfortunate of Events will work best for fans of the book series. It is a much closer fit (in terms of tone and atmosphere) to the books than the movie adaptation. The world that the show presents is certainly an acquired taste, one that readers will already be used to, but the show does a good enough job easing new fans into the world.
The thing that is immediately clear about A Series of Unfortunate Events is that everything is weird. The show is part Tim Burton, part Wes Anderson, part gothic live-action cartoon and something entirely its own. It’s a big sell and the series brings the viewer into the world by using the same strategy as the book, talking directly to them. The narrator of the tale — Lemony Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton — periodically interrupts the action and addresses the audience directly. There is a real relationship between author and audience in the series, even as it becomes clear that Snicket is also a character in the story.
These fourth-wall-breaking moments could have a tendency to be too clever for their own good. Yet Warburton’s deadpan delivery and the dialogue, which is often lifted straight from the books, is so clever and universally appealing that it almost always works. The jokes are there for both children and adults. There is a particularly hilarious running gag in the second episode, launched by Snicket’s narration, about the differences between the words “figuratively” and “literally.”
Snicket’s narration also introduces a level of necessary detachment from the story. Though the show never takes itself too seriously — it is really a comedy more than anything else — the plot isn’t exactly cheerful. A Series of Unfortunate Events follows a trio of highly intelligent children, Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire. The children have recently been orphaned after a disastrous fire destroyed their home and their parents. The Baudelaire orphans’ now-sizable fortune makes them the target of their new legal guardian, the evil Count Olaf.
It’s standard fairy tale stuff but the adults of A Series of Unfortunate Events are so breathtakingly stupid that it can often be frustrating to watch the children get abused and neglected over and over again. Thankfully, because A Series of Unfortunate Events takes place in a very surreal world, things never feel too oppressive. The abuse isn’t brushed off but it is not self-indulgent or dreary. The show can be both whimsical and menacing in the same scene.
The unique balance of whimsy and menace carries over to the character of Count Olaf. The initial trailers for A Series of Unfortunate Events played up the comedic part of Neil Patrick Harris’s performance as Olaf. In the actual series though, Neil Patrick Harris manages to keep Olaf’s outlandish behavior in check with presenting a villain who actually is a threat.
There are times when A Series of Unfortunate Events can get too self-indulgently clever. These moments are usually courtesy of Olaf. In one very unnecessary “funny” scene Count Olaf has a bizarre and impromptu musical performance. Really though, Neil Patrick Harris exemplifies the great and not-so-great parts of A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s silly and ridiculous but if you give yourself over to the craziness there is enough there to enjoy.
Bad Beginnings and Weird Endings … Maybe
One of the bigger question marks of the series, though, is the structure. Unlike most Netflix originals, A Series of Unfortunate Events doesn’t really lend itself to binge-watching. The first season (which covers the first four books) is essentially four mini-movies which are broken up into two parts, or episodes. It is a much better way to structure the story than the 2004 movie, which crammed in far too much story, but it also feels a bit odd.
A Series of Unfortunate Events doesn’t quite feel like episodic television or a mini-series or even a very long movie. It feels like it is own thing, which is both good and bad. It is nice to watch something that feels unique but the pacing is occasionally way off. Certain scenes will drag on for far too long while others go by in a flash. For example, the first episode immediately throws the Baudelaire children into their new hellish circumstances under Count Olaf’s “care” only to backtrack later and awkwardly fill in the blanks.
There is also an underlying mystery throughout A Series of Unfortunate Events that concerns the fate of the Baudelaire parents. This mystery was also present in the book series and it was by far one of the most disappointing aspects of the text. The Netflix series introduces some very big changes to the mystery that will shock book readers, but it is unclear if it does enough to change things for the better.
In the first couple episodes these injections of a larger conspiracy feel rather tacked on, but they could, with time, feel more natural. The book series was very much more about the journey than the destination. The Netflix series puts the ongoing mystery at is forefront, so hopefully things will come to a more satisfying conclusion, no matter how long the series actually lasts.
But what do you think? Have you watched A Series of Unfortunate Events? Do you plan on watching it? Are you familiar with the books? Is the show just the right amount of weird? What do you think of Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf?
A Series of Unfortunate Events season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.
(Images courtesy of Netflix)