I read up to the 7th book of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (The Vile Village). I don’t remember if I stopped reading it because I lost interest or I just grew out of it. I do recall greatly enjoying the series. Thumbing through the books again briefly before jumping into the new Netflix series, I was reminded how clever and smart (if not repetitive) the children’s book series was. The show is much like that, very clever and smart, but at times pretty repetitive. However, putting aside the repetitive nature of the storytelling, the Netflix version of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is an absolute delight. This show is fresh, funny and aggressively watchable. This isn’t perfect and is flawed but with some refinements, this could be a great show.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” is the second adaptation of the 13-part book series. The show covers the first 4 books in 8 episodes (two parts per book). The story follows the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire children whose family was killed in a fire. The Baudelaire children are heirs to the Baudelaire fortune, which leads to the evil Count Olaf to stop at nothing to try and get while they change from guardian to guardian attempting to uncover their family secrets.
I can honestly say that I was looking forward to this. I always thought the book series could make for some great films (or in this case TV series). The original 2004 film showed good potential if not just missed the mark. The TV series seems to make for a much better format for the story of the Baudelaire children. If fans of the books are looking for a faithful adaptation, they will find a very faithful one here. The show takes great pains to adapt nearly all of the events written in the novels. Some of the episodes do feel a bit dragged out and could have used a little trimming, but for the most part, the books fit nicely in the 2 episode spread.
Immediately from the first episode, I got a very “Addams Family Movie” feel from this show. I was unsurprised to find out that “Addams Family” director Barry Sonnenfield is a director of 4 episodes and a series producer. The show is very surreal and stylized. This was a smart choice considering the ridiculous nature of the events and comedy. The style even may remind you of a Wes Anderson movie. Very clearly, this is set in a very otherworldly settings. The surrealist imagery and self-reference comedy make this quite a unique package. The show attempts to mix comedy, drama, gothic imagery, a tongue in cheek attitude, self-aware, and the macabre.
Trying to mix all of this is a task to behold. And unsurprisingly this show doesn’t always gel together. When all the gears move together properly, this is one of the smartest series on TV with its fourth wall breaks by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of the real author of the original books) played by Patrick Warburton and over the top comedy style. When it doesn’t, it’s still enjoyable albeit a little frustrating. This isn’t always as clever as it seems to believe it is or as dark as it wants to be for a show that always keeps telling the audience it’s unpleasant and dark. It never quite embraces it.
It takes a few episodes for the series to find its stride. After the first episode I found myself lukewarm, but by episode 3 the show started to hook me in as it seemed the writing got stronger. So yes this series can be a bit messy at times.
Nearly all of the actors in the series are very well chosen. The 3 Baudelaire children are played by Louis Hynes (as Klaus the reader), Malina Weissman (as Violet the inventor) and Presley Smith (as Sunny the baby). These are absolutely wonderful child actors and are very good at carrying the series. K. Todd Freeman is hilarious as Mr. Poe, and the rest of the cast are well chosen- Joan Cusack, Will Arrnet, Aasif Mandvi (along with a laundry list of others).
The two top billing actors are Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf and Patrick Warburton as Lenny Snicket. At first, I thought Warburton would be a miscast. I LOVE Patrick Warburton, but his talents are normally best served elsewhere. However, I could not help but love what Warburton was doing here. He plays against type here as Lemony Snicket where he narrates the story and interrupts the events to explain or reveal hidden story secrets. Warburton reminded me an Alfred Hitchcock type of performance in his dry delivery and sly allusion to events about to unfold.
Neil Patrick Harris takes Count Olaf in a direction I wasn’t expecting (a more sarcastic comedic edge) and Harris is clearly having a ton of fun as he completely embraces the lunacy of the performance. It’s not an easy role to play and you need an actor that can bring a broad range of talents. Jim Carrey played him in the original movie and he did a good job there too (if not a bit too goofy with his Jim Carreyisms). In any case, both don’t quite have the sinister edge that I think the character calls for in the show. It’s sometimes there (in the Reptile Room episodes I saw it more), but because of the odd style it seems a little hard for Harris to decide when to commit to being scarier rather than a buffoon. He is certainly a lot of fun to watch on screen.
The last thing I need to comment on is the sometimes horrible green screen and computer-generated effects. I understood what they were going for. The green screen was supposed to feed into the stylized look of the show. However, at times it looks so bad and so cheap that it pulls you completely out of the scene. Sometimes it works, and when it does (like I said before) it’ll remind you a bit of a “Grand Budapest Hotel” type of look. But bad green screen and stylized aren’t mutually exclusive, it portrays a more lack of budget than anything else. There isn’t much depth to the look.
So from all of this, it’s clear the show can be a bit messy and at times a mixed bag. The stories are a bit repetitive and drag a little here and there. The tone doesn’t always work and the effects are VERY hit and miss. This all being said, I was always game to watch another episode. The series can be very clever and very smart. It’s mixing of different filmmaking techniques was fun, and the comedy works pretty well. Although, I wish the show would embrace more of its gothic and macabre undertones, go a little darker. With only 8 episodes it’s very easy to get through the series in a weekend. With some refinements and fine tuning, I could see this series becoming a great one. For now, it’s delightful and I’m glad it exists. I suppose that’s a good start.