May 12, 2018
Binge or No? Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events
There are lots of pleasant things to watch on Netflix: all seven seasons of Parks and Recreation, Fuller House, Golden Globe nominee/furry wet dream Zootopia, and the Haley Mills version of The Parent Trap. And yet on January 13th, people tuned in to stream the long-awaited adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, despite the pleas from narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warbuton) in the opening scene to watch something happier.
Based on the delightfully Gothic and absurdist children’s book series by Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket is a pseudonym/author avatar Handler uses for the series), the Netflix adaptation follows the Baudelaire siblings—Violent, a fourteen year old inventor; Klaus, a bookish twelve year old; and Sunny, a surprisingly advanced infant with a row of sharp teeth—whose lives become a series of unfortunate events (Hey, that’s the title of the series!) after their wealthy parents die in a fire at the family mansion. Arthur Poe (K. Todd Freeman), the executor of their parents’ estate, sends them to live with their distant relative Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), but it quickly becomes apparent that Count Olaf is after the Baudelaire’s fortune and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. Unfortunately for the children, every adult in their lives is oblivious to Count Olaf’s intentions and it’s up to them to rescue themselves. As the series progresses, the children discover and attempt to unravel their parents’ connection to a secret organization known as V.F.D.
I loved the novels when I was a kid and like many fans, I was bummed that the books never quite took off the same way Harry Potter or The Hunger Games did. There was a glimmer of hope when the series was adapted into a film version in 2004 starring Jim Carrey, but like a lot of Jim Carrey comedies, it was not very enjoyable while sober.
However, in early press releases and promotional materials, the Netflix adaptation showed promise of making up for the sins of its predecessor. Daniel Handler wrote some of the episode scripts and was extremely involved in the writer’s room, and the first four books would be split into two episodes each. If you’re already a fan of the series, you’ll probably binge the series anyway, but for those who are just dipping their toes into the world of mayhem, mystery, and misery, the decision to binge or no will be a little harder.
Very Fantastic Decision to Integrate the V.F.D. Plot Sooner
The first four books of A Series of Unfortunate Events follow the same format: the Baudelaire orphans are placed with another distantly related guardian, Count Olaf tracks them down and assumes a paper thin disguise to get closer to them, the children warn surrounding adults but are dismissed, Count Olaf is eventually revealed as a fraud, and they’re sent away to another guardian. There’s fan speculation that Handler was making up the series as he went along (Handler has gone on record admitting to having basic outlines but then tossing them out as he wrote) because it isn’t until the fifth book, The Austere Academy, that the mystery of the V.F.D. is introduced and the subsequent books place more emphasis on the Baudelaires’ investigating the organization instead of just fleeing Count Olaf.
The TV series has the advantage of knowing in advance the plot of all thirteen books plus the series’ supplemental materials, and they use it wisely to introduce the secrets of the V.F.D. in episode two, “The Bad Beginning: Part Two”. A new character, Jacquelyn (Sara Canning), is used to portray how the V.F.D. is trying to right the Baudelaires’ course from afar and several of the guardians—Dr. Montgomery Montgomery (Aasif Mandivi), Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard), and Sir (Don Johnson)—are shown to have direct ties to V.F.D., so it’s a little more clear as to exactly why the Baudelaires are being shipped off to these particular relatives. By setting up the V.F.D. earlier, it makes the reveals about the organization much more satisfying.
NPH Is Delightful, But Not Dark Enough
Neil Patrick Harris is a great choice to play Count Olaf. He can get silly without being obnoxious (thank God for no dinosaur impressions) and he gives Count Olaf the sociopathic charm that he did for his characters Barney Stinson and Dr. Horrible, which I believe adds more weight to how almost every adult is oblivious to Count Olaf’s transparently evil plans. However, I don’t believe Harris gets dark enough to make Count Olaf a truly fearsome villain. The series is campy and silly, but there’s got to be a threat to the Baudelaires in order to create suspense that would truly make the Baudelaire’s misery a little more real.
Harris does go dark occasionally, and when he does, it’s absolutely chilling, even if he’s in a ridiculous costume. The best example of this rare occurrence is in episode eight, “The Miserable Mill: Part Two”, where Count Olaf, dressed in drag, introduces himself as “Shirley” to the Baudelaires and subtly warns them not to blow his cover, threatening “to do something impolite to them, like for example, tear their hair out with my bare hands.”
It’s not enough that Count Olaf is a horrible, greedy, selfish man who wants the Baudelaire fortune; it’s that he’s a horrible, greedy, selfish man who’s willing to lie, cheat, steal, and outright murder for it. Having that undercurrent of darkness in the character makes sure that the viewer knows that the comedic displays are just displays. Neil Patrick Harris finds a good balance between the silly and the sinister, but I wish he veered into sinister just a little more.
TV Brings the Book Directly to Life
If you’ve never read the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, I’m not sure I’ll be able to adequately explain my excitement when I heard Patrick Warburton utter the words “a word here which means…” Part of the series’ wry tone came from Daniel Handler using sesquipedalian words and providing simplified definitions that also functioned as a joke for readers. I’m glad to see that the TV series is keeping this device, although I’ve heard some people complain that it’s a little condescending. I think that’s the point, since the Baudelaires are condescended to by almost every adult in the story, or at the very least, it’s a clever way to sneak in some education for young readers. Personally, I learned the phrase “a bolt from the blue” and the word “ersatz” from the book. At any rate, Patrick Warburton has a perfect, dry delivery that makes the definitions hilarious, which makes for great comedic moments in the series.
The books also always included a melodramatic plea from Lemony Snicket begging the reader to choose something happier from the bookshelf, and I’m glad that the TV series included a version of this by changing the theme song (performed by Neil Patrick Harris! What can’t that man do?) every episode to reflect the plot. The TV series also includes the maudlin “Dear Beatrice” dedications, which is also a welcome surprise, because I assumed no one would consider them important enough to include in the series.
These little touches go a long way into helping fans feel secure that the source material is being properly respected.
Very Few Actors Capture the Campy Tone
Despite the dark subject matter, A Series of Unfortunate Events assumes a campy tone, and unfortunately, very few actors are able to nail the comedy without sounding like they’re coming from a community theater production. The most egregious offender is surprisingly the great Alfre Woodard. “The Wide Window” episodes are the weakest due to her overacting and melodramatic posturing. The show tries to give Aunt Josephine’s character more depth by mentioning that she used to be a “fierce and formidable woman”, but Alfre Woodard’s idea of conveying these traits is to loudly proclaim that she used to be a fierce and formidable woman.
Sorry, Alfre, but you didn’t beat Meryl this time.
Special praise has to be given to K. Todd Freeman, who makes me like Mr. Poe despite being endlessly exasperated by him. Freeman portrays Mr. Poe as a bumbling but earnest man who thinks he’s a perfectly rational person, despite his obvious errors in judgment. This sounds mean, but trust me, his mild crying jag in “The Miserable Mill” is hilarious because of Freeman’s absolute sincere devastation over (mild spoiler alert!) being demoted at the bank for mishandling the Baudelaires’ affairs. I also want to give a shout-out to Catherine O’Hara, who plays Dr. Orwell in “The Miserable Mill”, for being such a creepy, sinister villain and still being able to throw some comedic aspects into her character.
The Baudelaire kids are decent, although I can’t decide if their wooden acting is supposed to be a Wes Anderson-esque choice, or if they just aren’t nailing their dry “straight man” personas. Presley Smith is the one who lands the jokes best and she’s a baby who talks in gurgles (done by Tara Strong, which is a weird choice) and subtitles. Similarly, the henchmen fluctuate between being comedic relief and actual sinister forces, and they never land either role perfectly. These characters are the ones that appear consistently across the episodes and they pale in comparison to the guest stars who sometimes nail their roles perfectly.
The Verdict? The Netflix version is way better than the film, but that was a low bar to surpass in the first place. On the one hand, the TV series’ eight episodes allows more time for the plot to breathe and to inject foreshadowing for the upcoming V.F.D. conspiracy. Through Patrick Warburton’s dry narration and fourth-wall breaking, the show thankfully maintains the wry, ironic tone of the books. However, very few of the actors are successful in straddling this line between sinister and silly, which results in episodes of mixed quality
Final Answer: It’s worth the watch, but not an immediate binge. Season 2 is allegedly in the works and hopefully it can make up for its not bad, but not amazing beginning.