Look away! Look away! This review is filled with nothing but dismay!
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a brand new Netflix show based on the not-so-new series of children’s books by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. It’s about the three Baudelaire children–Violet, Klaus, and Sunny–who lose their parents in a fire that destroys their home. Things only get worse for them after that, as they’re placed in the questionable care of Count Olaf, a no-good scoundrel and talentless actor who will stop at nothing to get his hands on their family fortune. Fortunately they’re able to use their talents–Violet’s knack for inventing, Klaus’s bookishness, and Sunny’s razor-sharp teeth–to stay one step ahead of him. But while the story may seem like a simple cat-and-mouse game between orphans and Olaf, there’s much more going on than meets the eye.
Before I get into what I thought of the show’s first season, I need to explain what the original books mean to me. As I may have mentioned before, I was a sheltered homeschooler, and like most sheltered homeschoolers of the ’90s, I wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter. So A Series of Unfortunate Events was my Harry Potter. From the age of about 12 to 14, I was obsessed with these books. I read all of them, including the companion books The Unauthorized Autobiography and The Beatrice Letters. There was a Snicket website back in the day, where you could solve puzzles and decipher codes based on the books, so I spent time on that when I was first discovering the internet. My best friend and little brother were both into the books at the same time I was, so we bonded by swapping theories about who Beatrice was, what was in the sugar bowl, what was up with that question mark thingy, and other “conundrums of esoterica” from the series. It wasn’t just fun, either–I learned a ton from these books. They taught me words like “misnomer,” “inordinate,” and “denouement.” They introduced me to T.S. Eliot. I think they contributed greatly to the development of my dark, morbid sense of humour. And last but not least, they taught me how vitally important it is to have a library card.
I liked the Jim Carrey movie that adapted the first three books, but its humour was just a bit over the top at times (because, you know, Jim Carrey). It also had trouble committing to the books’ brand of black comedy and moral ambiguity. The ending was way too uplifting for a Snicket creation, just as one example.
For the most part, the show does better justice to the books. Well, the first four anyway–the first season only covers The Bad Beginning through The Miserable Mill. I think all long book series should be made into TV shows rather than movies. A show allows you to fit in so much more detail and character development, especially when the original author is on the writing team, as is the case here. And when your original book series is a huge puzzle, filled with subtle clues for the readers to piece together, it’s especially helpful to take some extra time to include them for the viewing audience. In this series we get to see a little more of what’s going on behind the scenes in the Baudelaires’ sad tale, which makes the puzzle a bit easier, but also fleshes out the zany, anachronistic world in which the series takes place that much more.
Neil Patrick Harris is perfect in the role of Count Olaf, and he even finds excuses to break out his singing voice–which sometimes sounds a little too close to “Dr. Horrible” for my taste, but the theme song is catchy. The rest of the cast is equally stellar (personally I thought Meryl Streep was funnier as Aunt Josephine, but Alfre Woodard isn’t bad). I’m especially impressed at how good Sunny’s “acting” is, considering she’s, you know, a baby. Not sure whether to give more credit to the editing, CGI, or baby training for that. But the best person in the cast is Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket. As expected, he narrates all the Baudelaires’ adventures, but I was a bit taken aback at first to see that he does so by looking straight into the camera. The books always made a big deal out of never showing Snicket’s face in pictures, so I wasn’t sure I’d like this approach. But he quickly won me over with his dry, deadpan, Rod Serling-esque performance. He’s the one who really makes this show as great as it is.
Of course, it really helps that almost all the narration, as well as the dialogue, is lifted straight from the books. So we get to hear such gems of narration as, “If you are allergic to a thing, it is always best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.” And we get to hear, completely intact, all the little vocabulary lessons and literary references Snicket slips in between adventures, which I love, since I’m even more of a book nerd than a movie nerd. Likewise, the sets, costumes, and occasional fourth wall breaking all perfectly match the atmosphere of the books.
This series is not for everyone. The doom and gloom is mostly played for laughs, but there are a few rather gruesome deaths, and Count Olaf can be genuinely creepy on occasion. If you’re not a fan of black comedy, you may find the story more disturbing than funny, and some kids might find it too scary. On the other hand, it also gets extremely silly at times, which may put off a whole other portion of the audience. But if you grew up with the books, or even if you just like your entertainment on the literary-faux-Gothic-neonoir-dark-humour side, you’ll probably enjoy it.
The world of A Series of Unfortunate Events is a dark and unpleasant one, to be sure. Most adults are either evil or criminally stupid, no one pays attention to children, and the answers to the mysteries of life are always just out of reach. But it’s also a world in which knowledge, hard work, and loyalty can help one survive, and even find moments of happiness. The answers to the Baudelaires’ questions, and the key to outwitting Count Olaf’s latest scheme, can always be found in a library. Their motivation to keep going, no matter how difficult their lives get, can always be found in their love for each other and the memory of their parents. As cartoonish as the orphans’ circumstances get, most people can relate to the feeling that the whole world is out to get you, so it’s rather uplifting to see our heroes struggle to stick up for each other and do the right thing, even against overwhelming odds. It’s clear that even the children’s best efforts won’t earn them a happy ending, so it’s still not the most uplifting message ever, but I’ll take it. Sometimes happy endings aren’t everything. Sometimes you need a story that teaches the value of staying true to your moral code and moving forward, even when there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s also very important to teach people the proper use of the word “literally.” This show is doing the Lord’s work (not literally, of course).