I’m almost through my second viewing of Netflix’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events and I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to watch it again. Disregarding the mediocre attempt to bring the series to the big screen in 2004, Lemony Snicket’s dark and sarcastic tale of the Baudelaire orphans has finally been done the live-action justice it deserves. Through commendable performances, inspirational depth and design, and solid writing that holds the original narrative very close, the morose comedy has me counting down the days until season 2 finally pops up in my queue.
I recently did another read through of the 13 book series for the first time since high school. I will be paying close attention to the major differences between the book series and the live action show to determine if each difference is for the better or worse; possibly coming to the simultaneous realization that I am the only person who cares this much. Honestly, this is long overdue after having only the Jim Carrey version to compare to for the last 10 years. I mean, did they even spend more than 15 minutes on the casting for that film? They probably didn’t have time left after unnecessarily splicing up the once coherent plot; I digress. To avoid confusion I will not be mentioning the 2004 film during the rest of this review. Oh, and SPOILER ALERT!
One feature you will notice instantly in A Series of Unfortunate Events is the performances. An interesting cast has been put together to contribute to this macabre, adolescent series and they do it oh so well. I was intrigued the second I heard the familiar voice of Patrick Warburton, and downright excited once he stepped into frame to deliver the first of many hilariously appropriate monologues regarding the status of the Baudelaire orphans. While this was something I definitely didn’t expect at first, I soon realized that his characterization of Lemony Snicket was, to put it plainly, meant to be. This kept my interest enough while I waited for the star of the show to reveal himself. Neil Patrick Harris’ rendition of Count Olaf was exactly what I expected and, for the most part, wanted from the TV/Broadway actor. He brought the theatrics enough without going too over the top like some–nope, I said I wouldn’t bring it up. He fit right in with every character leap that his role required, always bringing something original, while remaining reminiscent of the original evildoer from the first two episodes. I will say that at times he seemed a little too “Barney Stinson-ey,” which pulled me out of the illusion more than I would have liked, but It was by no means a real issue for my viewing experience. Also, I like Barney Stinson.
The characters of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny made perfect sense. They weren’t necessarily remarkable casting choices, but as the show pushed on I started to see how much they resembled their counterparts in the novels; they don’t appear as the most remarkable characters here either. It makes me feel like a bastard for talking about orphans like this, but they serve as important plot devices based on the depth of their background and their development through slow character progression. Included in the cast is an exciting band of featured actors that keeps you looking forward to each introduction. A few notables are: K. Todd Freeman, Will Arnett, Aasif Mandvi, and Joan Cusack, who all slide perfectly into their roles, leaving a unique impression. In fact, these portrayals were so good, that watching some of them get eighty-sixed at the end of each story arch was a real bummer.
If you’re a fan of the Burtonesque art and design style then you will absolutely find an attachment to this series. Each new frame unloads a unique, drab yet colorful, gothic scenery to marvel at. Again, the set design stays very true to the depictions laid out in the books, and each inch of landscape and decor is perfectly placed, right down to the last spec of dust that makes up the foundation of Olaf’s House. At the same time, the change in scenery with each set migration introduces a new associative flavor for that particular part of the plot line. My only complaint comes from how excessive the CGI usage was. Initially I was impressed with the quality, but eventually it became a bit jarring to see Sunny throwing playing cards like a magician, or Aunt Josephine leaping out of a shattered window, headfirst. However, ridiculousness and whimsy add to the charm that keeps this story so original, so I let it go.
One of my favorite aspects of A Series of Unfortunate Events had to be the attention to detail when it came to the original subject matter. There is an art to the way that Daniel Handler brings Lemony Snicket’s satirical account of the Baudelaire orphans to life in the novels. The directors made a smart choice by keeping the script as close to the original text as possible. Since the books are arguably novella length, there’s an opportunity to come very close to verbatim. There are reasons to adapt text to fit more of a screenplay style, but in this case the original text added character to the show, giving it an eccentric and cynical charm. For instance:
Warburton: There’s a type of situation which occurs all too often in the story of the Baudelaire orphans called ‘dramatic irony.’ Simply put, a dramatic irony is when a person makes a remark and someone who hears it knows something which makes the remark have a different, usually unpleasant meaning. For example, if I were to say ‘I can’t wait to eat this almond cookie,’ but there were people around who knew that the almond cookie was poisoned, that would be dramatic irony.
Now on the other hand, there were some pretty big differences in both the dialogue and characterizations in the show. This is where I realized how much the originality of the Netflix series added to the story. Of course we were going to get a little more comedic volume from NPH’s Count Olaf. I actually laughed out loud, by myself, when I realized I had missed a joke just two minutes into his on screen appearance.
Harris: Welcome to my humble home, Orphans, and…a man with a hat on.
Harris: Actually, I’m about to be rather wealthy. So if you’ll excuse me…
Another welcome change came from the additional exposition of the more overshadowed characters from the novels. From Mrs. Poe and her lack of sympathy, to the comical villainy of Olaf’s theatre troupe, to the pressured but helpful waiter of the Anxious Clown restaurant, these expansions helped to solidify the atmosphere and show how self-centered and miserably dumb the adults of this world actually are. Lastly, the early on introduction of the V.F.D. organization provides the biggest difference between the books and the Netflix series. Peppering in small details and cutaways, not to mention direct contact between the organization members and the Baudelaire’s adds the element of an ongoing bigger picture. This creates a build up to a probable final conclusion closer to the end of the story, which is a bit lacking in the book series, especially the early volumes.
The Final Decree
A Series of Unfortunate Events brings remarkable variety to the Netflix Original’s lineup. There is a terrific atmosphere that feels organic with the grim style it is derived from The interesting cast choices and tendency to stick to the original subject matter, without fearing to stray away from it when necessary, is a feature that I think will keep the series consistently entertaining until its conclusion. While there are a few details that could be reworked in the next season, such as the over reliance on CGI and the few moments that break the connection with utter impossibility, the overall greatness of the the show is something that will continue to overshadow any of its faults. Therefore, I’m awarding A Series of Unfortunate Events with 8.5 sarcastic annotations out of 10!
Editor’s note: “Sarcastic annotations,” in this context, means to imply a rating system by which a long form TV series can be judged, while “In this context,” in the previous sentence, means to assume the author of this article is actually qualified to judge anything at all. Author’s note: The use of “Editor” in the previous notation means to assume that a person is competent enough to provide insightful suggestions regardless of their actual qualifications.