A Series of Unfortunate Events Season 1 Review: A Series of Unexpected Delights

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Daniel Handler’s acerbic young adult novels finally get their due in a Netflix series that’s much more whimsical than its title (and theme song) would have you believe.

As a franchise, A Series of Unfortunate Events has long suffered itself from some unfortunate timing. The novels made their debut in 1999, just two years after a little book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone took the world by storm. Initially, the success of Harry Potter was a major boon to A Series of Unfortunate Events and several other titles just like it. In 2004, we were given a film version of the first three novels with the likes of Jim Carrey, Jude Law, Meryl Streep, and Billy Connolly attached. The film was entertaining enough—though divisive amongst fans of the books—but it ended up being a non-starter. A Series of Unfortunate Events got lost in the shuffle of so many other YA properties, and went into a dead zone for several years.

Much like the series itself, however, this initial bout of bad news ended up being a good thing. Adapting a book series for television might not have seemed like a good idea in the early 2000s, but now, in the era of Game of ThronesOutlander, and the upcoming Big Little Lies, TV is the place for books to be.  A Series of Unfortunate Events makes so much more sense in a episodic format—it has the word “series” in its title, after all. Having this story told on Netflix is a decision that is very fortunate for us all.

The plot, for those who are unaware, follows the misadventures of the Baudelaire children, who are abruptly orphaned one day when their parents perish in a horrible fire that also consumes their home. Violet, the eldest, (Malina Weissman) is a brilliant inventor. Her brother Klaus (Louis Hynes) is a knowledgable bookworm. Their baby sister Sunny (Presley Smith, stealing scenes with a little help from some CGI) is also much smarter than she looks, and her fondness for biting things often comes in handy.

We follow these three children through several disastrous encounters, as they are shuffled from inept guardian to inept guardian following their parents demise. On top of this, they must fight to stay one step ahead of Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a sensational and self-indulgent con artist—and wannabe actor—who’s greedily after the large fortune that the Baudelaire parents left behind. There’s also an intriguing mystery afoot, as the circumstances surrounding the fire that took them and their home becomes murkier and murkier, and an elusive secret organization seems to exist on the fringes of every episode.

It’s an exciting premise to be sure, but one of the reasons it works so well as a series is that its attention to detail fits nicely in this long-form narrative format. A Series of Unfortunate Events bears the skeleton of a classic YA franchise—dystopian universe, evil authority figures, children who grow up way too quickly—but it’s far more idiosyncratic than many of its contemporaries. Contrary to the title of the show, and the many warnings we’re given in each episode that what we’re about to see will only bring us pain and misery, the material here is often whimsical and irreverent. It’s a gothic screwball comedy that exists in a faux-maudlin world where children are often smarter than adults. The story relishes in theatricality and a perfectly timed comedic aside. Luckily for us, Netflix allowed this show’s freak flag to really fly.

The success of adapting the tone and style of the novels for TV lies chiefly with Daniel Handler—aka the real Lemony Snicket—and his collaboration with director Barry Sonnenfeld. Handler serves as a producer and head writer for the series, having a hand in all eight episodes of the first season. Each novel is told over two installments, and the extra time really allows his dark humor and unique sensibilities to flourish.

Sonnenfeld, also pulling double duty, is the executive producer for the show, and helms four of the episodes himself. His previous work on the equally sharp Pushing Daisies makes him a perfect fit for this show’s mixture of melancholy and unabashed goofiness. Together, these two are able to take a story about orphaned children, arsonists, and murders and make it into one of the most giddily entertaining shows of the new year.

Everything about A Series of Unfortunate Events is over the top in the best way possible. The sets—a mixture of real and green screen—are impeccably detailed and visually stunning. The costumes are flamboyant and striking. The music is often vaudevillian, including the show’s theme song, which is sung by Harris and changes ever so slightly for each chapter in the story.

Then there’s the cast. Weissman and Hynes make for fine protagonists, and they do perfectly well as straightmen against the wonkiness that occurs around them. Still, its the bumbling and conniving adults that are much more fun to watch. Harris is an outstanding Count Olaf, and his work on the show is easily a career best (not that there’s anything wrong with Barney Stinson). His performance is deliciously hammy, and genuinely sinister. Watching him chew scenery is vastly entertaining, especially when he dons a disguise that everyone but the Baudelaire orphans seems to fall for.

Much like the 2004 film, A Series of Unfortunate Events also benefits from several big-name guest stars who join in on the shenanigans. Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, Alfre Woodard, Don Johnson, and Catherine O’Hara (who, coincidentally, also had a role in the 2004 film) all make appearances as various figures who either try and fail to help the Baudelaires, or who try to get in their way.

Perhaps one of the most interesting figures in the show, however, is Lemony Snicket himself. In the film, Jude Law gives a voiceover narration of the tragic events that transpire. Here, Patrick Warburton appears as an onscreen narrator who has “dedicated his life” to retelling the events of the Baudelaire orphans, and who might have some personal involvement in the story himself. The decision to make Snicket a more central presence is a welcome one, as Warburton’s dry delivery of the plot details—and some sly asides in order to give context—is among one of the show’s highlights.

The series follows the books very closely, but the biggest change arises from the mystery being brought to the forefront the plot in a much speedier manner. The first four novels—the source material for season one—only hint at a larger conspiracy afoot, but these episodes present evidence of it everywhere. There are several well-placed visual cues that anyone who’s read the novels will appreciate, and some new characters who add to the excitement of what’s about to unfold.

Unfortunately, for those who haven’t read the books, you’re not going to get too many answers this go-around. The real meat of what happened to the Baudelaires doesn’t pick up until book 5, my personal favorite of the series. The show’s creators are already hard at work on season 2, but don’t fret. This isn’t some Lost-style mystery that will leave you confused and chomping at the bit. There’s so much to behold in this series’ first outing. It’s a tale of some some truly terrible things that happen to some very kindhearted people. And yet, it’s one of the best pieces of escapist entertainment that I’ve seen in a while. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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