A children’s book series warning its pint-sized readers to shut its pages, forget about its terrible contents and to find a more suitable book to read, is inspired reverse psychology designed to lure children into its complex center. But for a Netflix series – in the middle of #PeakTV no less – to do the same with its latest show is almost shockingly glib. After all, who would dare to wish away viewers? The answer, it seems, is A Series of Unfortunate Events, Netflix’s latest (relatively) family-friendly outing that shares its name with Lemony Snicket’s dark and charming 13-book series, which devoted to chronicling the uncommonly bleak lives of Baudelaire orphans Klaus, Violet and Sunny.
It’s not the first time the series has been adapted for the screen. 2004 saw a reworking of the first three books into one feature narrative, starring Jim Carrey as the series’ unrelenting antagonist, Count Olaf. And though it was quite spot-on in spirit, the film was largely notable in the way it cheated the original series’ sweeping narrative, truncating the entire ordeal as a result, and failing to give fans of the books the proper adaptation they may have been hoping for.
So did Netflix get it right? For purveyors of quirks and fans of the original books, there’s a lot to love. The Baudelaire’s world, from Briny Beach to Uncle Monty’s Reptile Room, is nearly perfectly wrought, and though casual fans might find its aesthetics to be simply lifted from the prior film adaptation, those familiar with the books will be able to see the clear influence of Brett Helquist’s original illustrations in every frame. But it’s the writing, much of which has been done by Daniel Handler – the real man behind the “Lemony Snicket” nom de plume – that truly shines here, with the same acerbic wit and grim sense of humor that made his work so illuminating nearly two decades ago.
The scripts leave intact some of the most charming elements of the book’s verbal eccentricities, including Snicket’s macabre letters to his now dead lover Beatrice at the outset of each episode, as well as plenty of sly dictionary talk from narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton). It’s very often funny and very often quite sad, and masterfully sets a dreamy, screwball tone that allows the increasingly mad series of events to unfold with an implicit wink.
That all brings us to the casting. The choice of Neil Patrick Harris might have raised a few eyebrows (certainly mine) when the series was first announced, but the star actually rather handily embodies the dastardly villainy of Count Olaf. Preserving his deeply necrotic sensibilities with his laughably grandiose sense of self, Harris prompts laughs as often as deeply shocked squirms even as Olaf undergoes a series of madcap disguises. Warburton is deeply charming as Snicket, a fourth-wall smasher and part-time historian devoted to retracing the doomed path of the Baudelaires years after they have left. And the guest stars (a roster which includes everyone from Joan Cusack to Don Johnson to Catherine O’Hara) chew on the idiosyncratic material with gusto.
The real failure of the series, unfortunately, is in the casting of the three orphans: Klaus (Louis Hynes) Sunny (Presley Smith) and Violet (Malina Weissman) who – despite shallow characterization – are nonetheless responsible for shouldering the series on the merits of their morality, resolve, and considerable brains. And though the children match the description to a T, their performances are often confoundingly precious, out of place in such a self-aware series, and as a result, feel far too two-dimensional. (Sunny’s presence in particular is so interchangeable that more eagle-eyed viewers will often be able to spot a digitized replacement of the child in more than a few scenes.)
When I spoke to Harris earlier this year, the star suggested that a second season had not yet been greenlit by Netflix, but leaving the series as it is – with nine books still to cover – would be a real shame. During the course of its first season, the narrative winds its way through detailed adaptations of The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window and The Miserable Mill, strong and iconic entries that nonetheless shortchange the series’ true depth, an oversight that could fail to grab newcomers’ attention thanks to the early entries’ repetitive nature. But the lure of Snicket’s rich mythology is there, with a few notable tweaks that might even suggest that Handler’s original and much-maligned ending might be changed in the show’s upcoming seasons.
To bring the Baudelaire’s back after such a long absence certainly warrants a spot-on take on the beloved tale, and while it’s not without its faults, Netflix’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events certainly has a bright and familiar enough voice to charm life-long fans out of their misgivings while bringing a new youthful audience into its dastardly folds. And while adult non-fans might find themselves out-quirked and frankly exhausted by the show’s tone, it’s deeply Snicket-y, unapologetically dark, and a fresh yet familiar adaptation that should charm grown fans and childhood bingers alike. We can all breathe that sigh of relief – A Series of Unfortunate Events is no misery after all.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events premieres Friday, January 13th on Netflix.