Showrunners: Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld
Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a surreal and colourful adaption of Lemony Snicket’s book series of the same name. We follow the tragic lives of the Baudelaire children, Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny (Presley Smith, Tara Strong), who are orphaned when their parents perish in a mysterious fire. They are delivered into the care of Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a cartoonish villain whose only goal is to steal their vast inheritance by any means necessary – as long as it involves dramatic flair. The ensuing events are strange, depressing, and utterly ridiculous.
Any visual adaptation of Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is going to be polarising, as the controversial 2004 film adaptation showed us. The original book series is full of contradictions and ambiguities in its tone and setting that are impossible to maintain on screen. Where the book series plays out on sliding scales of realism and seriousness, the Netflix series occupies a fixed point where the surrealism and goofiness is turned up to maximum, and everything else is left to fall into place around that.
The show is quite enjoyable if you can get past the silliness that underlies nearly every event and character. More so than in the books or the film, the show renders its adult characters absurdly and frustratingly stupid, to the point that only the Baudelaire children seem capable of reasoning at an adult level. Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) in particular is unrivalled in his ability to earnestly care for the children’s wellbeing while repeatedly delivering them into obvious danger. This is mostly used to great comedic effect, though the script tends to fall flat when it leans upon the stupidity of its characters too heavily.
Aside from the script, the biggest departure from the books is the show’s cartoonish aesthetic, which cycles between Wes Anderson-style dollhouse utopias and Burton-esque gothic sets. While these cartoonish qualities prove compatible with the book series’ bizarre plot, it does take some getting used to. The flamboyant use of CGI is particularly hit or miss – there are a few sketchy attempts to superimpose cars on roads and people on streets that prove more distracting than stylish. That said, the CGI also provides some wonderfully vivid moments of absurdity, especially where the youngest Baudelaire and her razor sharp teeth are concerned.
Ultimately, the show’s casting and performances are its main selling point. The series boasts an impressive supporting cast, with Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, and Alfre Woodard all turning in strong performances. Neil Patrick Harris is excellent as Count Olaf, a villainous wannabe thespian who improvises his way through a host of poorly thought-out disguises. It’s a tough role to nail after Jim Carrey’s memorable performance in the 2004 film, but NPH does well to make the role his own. His age is the only real issue I had – with layers of makeup to make him look older, he never quite sinks into the role as well as Carrey did.
For me, the key ingredient of the show’s success is the casting of Patrick Warburton as the miserable narrator, Lemony Snicket. His gravitas and authoritative demeanour provide a much needed counterpoint to the unbelievable plot and characters, and he does an excellent job bringing to life the colourful narration that made the book series so compelling. He puts forward a consistently excellent performance (bar some off-key singing in the final episode), without which the show would have lacked a substantial core.
So is it a good series overall? It depends on what you’re looking for. With its commitment to absurdity and levity, the show never reaches the same peaks of dramatic tension and abject misery that the books and the film achieve. Rather, the show provides a charming and darkly comedic version of the series’ events and – perhaps more importantly – a bold and self-aware reinterpretation of its telling to suit the new medium. Whether it appeals to you beyond that is a matter of taste, but if you’re interested in unique approaches to television fiction, it’s definitely worth a watch.