When Netflix announced they’d be bringing a TV series adaptation of Daniel Handler’s (under the pen name Lemony Snicket) A Series of Unfortunate Events I was giddy like a school girl. As much as I enjoyed the Harry Potter series, and a few other young adult novels when I was growing up, no other series left an impression on me the same way A Series of Unfortunate Events did. Years away from the books has only left me with vague memories of the plot of each of the books, which makes comparing the show to the books difficult, however it is interesting, and fun, to get to experience each of the stories for the first time again.
A Series of Unfortunate Events deals with the three Baudelaire Orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, after the death of their parents in a fire that destroyed their home and everything they own. The first season lasts eight episodes and covers the first four books in the series. Each book is broken into two episodes. This approach clearly worked for the series, and gave each book adequate attention, but there were some points where the episodes felt repetitive and rushed. Its clear that the show was meant to appeal to both kids and adults (and millennials, who drive the nostalgia machine), but most of the episodes could have benefitted from a few extra minutes to flesh out the various guardians each of the kids end up with. With some exception to Count Olaf (played by Neil Patrick Harris), the villains come across as flat and two dimensional. If it wasn’t for Count Olaf, I’d expect one of his henchman to twist his or her mustache (figuratively) and tie the children to a set of railroad tracks (literally). Catherine O’Hara’s Dr. Georgina Orwell is formidable, but the bits and pieces of backstory we get from her only tease you with information that never really amounts to anything.
It’s inevitable that watching this new TV series people will compare it to the movie that came out 13 years ago which starred Jim Carrey as Count Olaf. Neither portrayal of Count Olaf was perfect. Watching Neil Patrick Harris was like watching Barney from How I Met Your Mother pull off one of his plays from his playbook. But Jim Carrey was so whacky and over the top at time, it was like watching any of the other roles he is famous for. Between the two, Harris was easily the more villainous. The wedding plan from the first two episodes was actually uncomfortable to watch. Harris’s portrayal fit in with the absurdist tone that the series is famous for whereas Carrey was too goofy for the darkened world built around him. I also preferred Patrick Warburton’s portrayal of Lemony Snicket over Jude Law’s. Law’s felt like standard narration, where Warburton takes a more active role in the story. During several scenes Warburton will walk in amongst the action to provide insight to the events taking place. Since Snicket is more than just a narrator to the events in the book, I am glad to see the TV series taking a similar approach. Plus, there is something inherently funny about a “bystander” narrating the unfortunate events the Baudelaire’s experience, and not doing anything about it. It plays into the fourth wall breaking trend that has become more and more popular since House of Cards and Deadpool.
Of course, the most impressive acting in the series comes from the actors playing the Baudelaire orphans. Violet Baudelaire is played by Malina Weissman, Klaus Baudelaire is played by Louis Hynes, and Sunny Baudelaire is played by Presley Smith and voiced by Tara Strong. These three have little to no acting credits prior to this show, and it already seems like these are the roles they were meant to play. One of the key character traits of the orphans in the books is their free-thinking nature that sets them apart from the adults, and both Weissman and Hynes show that in the way they act out their characters. The best part about these three is their believability as children. The actors in the film adaptation seemed too old in some of the scenes. The fact that the TV series has actual children playing the roles of children makes their contrast with the adults all the more frustrating to watch, and the villainous situations more dire. The stark, noticeable, age difference between Harris and Weissman made the wedding plan from the first two episodes immediately uncomfortable, which was furthered by Harris’s sinister, money-obsessed, portrayal of Count Olaf.
The tv series not only manages to capture the sinister, yet absurdist, nature of the books through the actors and story, but through the set design. Berry Sonnenfeld was partially responsible for the unique look of Bryan Fuller’s show Pushing Daisies, and Bo Welch had his hand in production design for a lot of early Tim Burton films. A Series of Unfortunate Events captures the best of both of those worlds. The entire series is designed with a whimsical but gothic aesthetic that feels like an extension of the characters. Olaf’s house is in such a state of disrepair that its hard to imagine anyone would live in it, which is clearly representative of Olaf’s character. When the Baudelaire’s meet Justice Strauss, her home is colorful, friendly, and full of life, just like her character. A massive contrast with Olaf’s home across the street. All of the places the Baudelaire’s visit are simultaneously playful and frightening, as if the creators are reminding the audience that this is a story since it is so far removed from reality. The contrast between good and evil is clearly represented by the use of colors in the sets since the good, friendly, places are usually bright and colorful, while the evil, foreboding, places are dark and hopeless. If I was teaching an english class, and I wanted to teach about the use of color and what it can symbolize, A Series of Unfortunate Events would be a textbook example, perfect as a teaching tool.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is ridiculously depressing to watch. Like the books, the TV series urges the audience to look away and put on something happier (a tactic that only makes you want to watch more), which is appropriate because the story only gets increasingly depressing with each new installment in the story. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t point out how fun it is to watch. In order to break up the repetitive nature of the narrative, the TV series introduces elements that are important in the later books in the series, but add an exciting twist for those unfamiliar with the books. These elements of the greater over-arching mystery bring some intrigue to the story to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. After binging this over the course of Friday-Sunday, I can’t believe I have to wait an entire year for the next season.