When Netflix announced they would be adapting Lemony Snicket’s (aka Daniel Handler) A Series of Unfortunate Events I was a little skeptical. Now, it’s true that a lot of their original series efforts (Stranger Things, Orange Is The New Black, BoJack Horseman) have been consistently excellent and entertaining, but A Series of Unfortunate Events is something very near and dear to my heart, and I’ve been burned once before. Nickelodeon’s film adaptation, though handsomely made and entertaining in its own right, failed to capture much of what made Handler’s series so engrossing and exceptional. Time passed, the actors grew too old and a sequel or even a reboot seemed pointless as the years rolled by and the final book was released. Any hopes of seeing the misadventures of the Baudelaire orphans told on the big screen seemed hopeless.
Netflix, expanding their original series and film catalog by the second these days, decided that along with their Gilmore Girls and Full House reboots/continuations that they would try their hand at adapting Hander’s grim stories. I can’t say that I wasn’t skeptical at Casting Emmy and Tony award winner Neil Patrick Harris in the role of Count Olaf, a role previously inhabited by Jim Carrey, was an inspired choice, but one that was either going to be pitch perfect or downright awful, much like his turn in David Fincher’s Gone Girl.
But when the teasers and trailers started dropping, I felt myself growing more optimistic. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how brilliant of an idea adapting the series into a television show was. Though I am one of the few that will go to bat for the film adaptation, even I can admit its flaws, the pacing being the most glaring one. With a television series, the duplicitous, grim and expansive world he created on the page would be given the time and room to breathe and develop over time, instead of being crammed together for running time’s sake like it was in the film. That is one of the many reasons why Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is so brilliant.
The first season follows the first four books in the series: “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room,” “The Wide Window” and “The Miserable Mill” with each book getting two episodes, so eight in total. This alone allows the series the time and space to lay the groundwork before the underlying story becomes evident in the sixth and seventh books, which will no doubt be included in the next season. We meet the inventive Violet (Maline Weissman), studious Klaus (Louis Hynes) and little Sunny (Presley Smith) who loves to bite things with her sharp teeth. The three siblings learn in the opening episode that their parents have suddenly perished in a terrible fire that destroyed their entire home from their clueless and useless banker Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), who immediately gets to work on finding them a proper guardian, though he fails in the proper department, as the three are sent to live with their distant relative Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris).
Count Olaf is a dark, but fun role for any actor, just look at Jim Carey’s performance in the film adaptation. But where Carey stepped up the campiness of Olaf at the expense of his inherent evil and inner darkness, Harris finds a perfect marriage between all of these complexities and delivers a true and worthy villain to challenge our trio of heroic orphans. Olaf wants nothing more than to get his hands on the huge fortune the Baudelaire parents left behind, and will stop at nothing to get it. He chases the three children all over, from guardian to guardian inhabiting a more ridiculous disguise each and every time to avoid detection. As in the series, the adults prove useless leaving the children to save the day time and time again.
There’s a hint of Wes Anderson here, especially with the way the performances of Weissman, Hynes and even Smith are rendered. You have some veteran actors like Joan Cusack (the dim-witted but good hearted Justice Strauss), Alfre Woodard (the timid and scared Aunt Josephine), Don Johnson (a lumber mill owner named ‘Sir’) Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders as the Baudelaire’s deceased (or are they? hmm…) parents and Catherine O’Hara (who played Justice Strauss in the film, but plays the menacing Dr. Orwell here) with Lemony Snicket (Seinfeld‘s Patrick Warburton) serving as the narrator. In the film, this role was played by Jude Law who wasn’t bad, but didn’t have the grim, deadpan delivery that the books were famous for. Warburton is a more effective fit for Snickett, stepping into the frame to explain and deliver some exposition when necessary. As a super fan of the books, I couldn’t help but smile because it felt as if the spirit of the books leapt from the page and right onto the screen
And that may just be because Handler himself had more of a direct role in the creation of the series; he wrote five of the eight episodes. There are hints of the gothic production design from Rick Heinrichs and Cheryl Carasik that was one of the highlights in the film adaptation splattered throughout, but the work of production designer Bo Welch (who has worked on films like Beetlejuice) is a better fit, and effectively conveys the scope and grandness of the world the Baudelaire orphans find themselves navigating. The costumes are also gorgeous; there’s lots of bright colors mixed in with grim ones that make the whole thing really pop against the backdrops. Again, its something those who loved the books can really appreciate.
I’ve already seen some takedowns of the series from admitted non-fans, and that may just be because the series is so true to the weirdness and off-putting voice of the books that it might be alienating to some. I’m certainly interested to see how Netflix and the team behind the series continues to develop the story, especially as the hidden plot comes to the surface and the overall tone shifts along with it. But what’s important now, at least, is that we finally have an adaptation of Handler’s series that we can not only be proud of, but thoroughly enjoy.
Now, can we get those next episodes ASAP?