"A Series of Unfortunate Events:" macabre, quirky and pure fun

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 1/24/17 1:55am

Netflix’s new show, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” begins with narrator Lemony Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton, warning viewers, “In this story not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” Combine that with a unique opening segment that warns viewers to “look away,” and the stage is truly set. “A Series of Unfortunate Events” may try to convince you that it is nothing but dour gloom and despair, but in reality it’s pure dark-comedic gold.

Daniel Handler’s original 13-book series had an impact on enough childhoods — mine included ­— that Hollywood decided to adapt the first three books into a 2004 film starring Jim Carrey. While the film isn’t the worst adaptation in existence, it pales in comparison to the new TV show because it refuses to embrace the absurdity and cynical worldview of its source material. After all, the main message of the books — and now the TV show — seems to be: life isn’t fair, and you’re going to have to learn to deal with it.

The first season of the Netflix series adapts the first four books into two-part episodes, which allow the creators to retain the original series’ numerous quirks while adding mysteries of their own.

The Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, are sent to live with the villainous Count Olaf after their parents die in a mysterious fire. Olaf is only interested in their sizeable fortune and relentlessly pursues the children as they are shuffled around from one guardian to the next. Some have complained that this story structure makes the episodes repetitive, but the characters are so endearing, and the designs so unique that I hardly think it matters.

Perhaps the biggest improvement over the 2004 film is the cast. Louis Hynes and Malina Weissman, in particular, manage to capture the essence of Klaus’ and Violet’s characterizations, respectively. Admittedly, their interactions with each other in the earlier episodes are a little wooden, but by the end of the season, they really feel like real siblings.

Infant Presley Smith also gets the occasional chuckle as baby Sunny, though I doubt she knows she’s being filmed — she’s just that method. K. Todd Freeman, Alfre Woodard, Don Johnson, Catherine O’Hara and Joan Cusack all commit to the farcical nature of their characters with surprising integrity.

And then there’s Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. Harris’ interpretation is captivating because most of the time he plays Olaf as an amoral yet comedic character. But there are brief moments where we realize this is all just a cover up for much deeper pain and anger. The entire plot of the first two episodes revolves around Olaf trying to marry 14-year-old Violet for her fortune. Harris’ performance here is both humorous and genuinely creepy, resulting in some of the series’ best scenes. In some ways his characterization of Olaf is a lot like the show itself: on the surface, it’s absurd yet amusing, but when you look a little deeper, you begin to see the humanity.

As good as all the actors’ performances are, the real unsung hero is Warburton’s Snicket, our permanently sorrowful narrator. He wanders in and out of scenes, often giving unhelpful definitions for random words or commenting on the storytelling techniques being employed by the screenwriters. His presence allows the show to translate the more meta aspects of the books to a visual medium, and Warburton’s dry delivery encourages laughter.

His presence also gives the creators an opportunity to satirize children shows, which often try to be bright and welcoming while also including an educational component. Here, Snicket begs us to watch something else and his definitions are often so situation specific that they completely negate any educational potential.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was just how good all of the episodes are. When I was younger, I remember my favorite books came after the halfway point in the series. The stakes were higher and the stories less predictable. Yet all four of the adaptations in this first season were memorable.

In fact, “The Reptile Room: Part One” was probably my favorite episode even though it was based on my least favorite of the books. This is thanks in no small part to Aasif Mandvi, who plays the Baudelaire’s second guardian, Dr. Montgomery Montgomery. Monty is an eccentric herpetologist and the only character in the show who actually seems to love and care about the orphans. In the books, this means that Monty comes off as, well boring. Handler is brilliant at creating fifty shades of despicable, but he seems to struggle when it comes to likeability. However, Mandvi is so eccentric and so lovable that he steals every scene he’s in. Yes, even the ones with Harris.

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” is certainly not a show for everyone. It feels a little bit like a writer obsessed with grammar met a surrealist filmmaker at a bar and after a few drinks they said to each other, “Let’s make a kids show and see what happens.” The result is offbeat to say the least, with performances that feel like they belong on the stage instead of on a computer screen, based on uneven pacing and framing and staging that often feel a little counterintuitive.

For some, this will be a part of the show’s charm, and for others, it will merely come across as awkward. Nonetheless, it is an exceedingly faithful adaptation and, like its source material, is just as much for adults as it is for kids. The show reminds us that children are often more intelligent than we give them credit for, and being condescending to them just makes us look dumber. I can’t help but admire something which treats kids with that level of respect.

Rating: 8/10