Some of you may have come here expecting a gloomy and crushing review of a failed adaptation of a beloved series of children’s books. If so, you are in the wrong place, and you’d best stop reading right now.
A Series of Unfortunate Events charts the times and trials of three plucky orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire after the sudden and unexpected death of their parents in a house fire. Left with an enormous inheritance they can’t access until Violet comes of age, and a mysterious spyglass, they are left by an incompetent banker in the care of the nefarious Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) who is only interested in their fortune in one sense…
Netflix’s adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events is a resounding success, making brave and exciting creative decisions, playing with the form, winking at the audience with knowing and meta jokes and casting a Count Olaf who knows when to stop chewing the scenery and let the rest of the cast shine (unlike some *cough-Jim Carrey-cough*).
The series, made exclusively for Netflix, can boast writing and production credits by the writer of the original books Daniel Handler, adding an authenticity that is noticeable in such a distinctively-styled piece. Keeping the titles and plots of the original books, the series devotes two episodes to the events of each book which constitutes a sort of ‘chapter’ in the Baudelaires’ lives. The narrator Lemony Snicket is a real presence in the show, adding amusing and revealing asides, as well as setting up an extra layer of mystery. This device could have fallen flat, but it works effectively, in part due to the inspired casting of Patrick Warburton. With a voice like an oak-matured Jon Hamm, his role really pushes the show in terms of creative experimentality which is ideal for this sort of story.
The narrator Lemony Snicket is a real presence in the show, adding amusing and revealing asides, as well as setting up an extra layer of mystery. This device could have fallen flat, but it works effectively, in part due to the inspired casting of Patrick Warburton. With a voice like an oak-matured Jon Hamm, his role really pushes the show in terms of creative experimentality which is ideal for this sort of story.
What works so well about this series is that every element is working at maximum to embody the distinctive style and tone of the books. There’s the wonderful set design, which creates a world set in a distinct hyper-reality; it’s Wes Anderson meets Tim Burton, colourfully child-like yet palpably unsettling. It’s present in the embracing of the genre-savvy asides, including definitions of words, which in the wrong hands could seem clunky, but here feel inspired. There’s the fantastic casting of everyone, from one episode cameos, to the motley band of baddies and the central siblings; the whole ensemble is giving it their all, with distinct and larger than life performances that never detract from everything else going on. Child actors are hard to cast, but the roles are solidly and confidently filled, making the children sympathetic and root-able for.
The casting of Neil Patrick Harris as the villain is inspired; he brings a dexterity to the role, deftly switching from deliciously hammy camp to genuinely sinister threat. This performance is no cartoon, as the 2004 movie adaptation sadly fell into. This Count Olaf will have you laughing as he sings, dresses up and make snide remarks about preferring long-form storytelling to movies, but his threats and physical mistreatment of the orphans gives him a genuine weight as incompetent and inept, yet no less dangerous a villain. He is a joy to watch on screen, and what could have been an eye-rollingly tiresome set up of him showing up in a new disguise to trick the children in each chapter is something instead to look forward to.
The supremely talented (Tony award-winning no less!) Neil Patrick Harris, as well as acting and producing, lends his voice to the theme song, which is extremely catchy (I’ve been humming it for the past three days) and well worth taking the time to listen to. Demonstrating the sort of extra detail that really sets this series apart, there’s an extra easter egg in that each story has it’s own unique and appropriate verse in the opening theme, so ensure Netflix doesn’t auto-skip it!
This series is an undeniable triumph; I haven’t had such an enjoyable few hours of TV escapism for a good while. I can’t wait for the next series to continue the story…so many unanswered questions! The reason why A Series of Unfortunate Events really excels, and why you should not dismiss it as child’s fare, is that doesn’t sugarcoat the dark moments, which is exactly what made the stories so popular in the first place. Unless you’ve got something happier to watch, why not spend some time learning the sad tale of the Baudelaire?
Words: Heidi Teague