This show will wreck your evening, your whole life and your day, but it happens to be one of the best recent series on Netflix.
I’ve always admired A Series of Unfortunate Events. Spanning suitably thirteen novels, Lemony Snicket’s grim coming-of-age series offered young readers an ominous dystopia of adult lunacy and crestfallen young ‘uns, communicating dark messages of hardship, trust and familial togetherness with bitingly black humour. Save for a rickety (which, I’m reminded, means “unsteady” or “likely to collapse at any moment”) 2004 adaptation, Unfortunate Events has seen less publicity since its closure a decade ago than other childhood tales of its day, and perhaps it was for this reason that I approached Netflix’s freshly-spun eight-part series with a tremulous sense of unease. Indeed, after spending so long buried beneath the comparably peppy Potter and Star Wars tributes, the possibility of the quirky mid-noughties saga achieving a lukewarm episodic gloss instead began to circulate uncomfortably within my mind as I hovered over Netflix’s precious play button. Thankfully, however, it was Season One’s first episode that convinced me of the extent to which my previous contentions were but pessimistically unreasonable rubbish. As it happens, it’s rather good indeed.
Creator: Mark Hudis, Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Joan Cusack, Patrick Warburton, Aasif Mandvi, Melina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith, K. Todd Freeman.
Run Time: 50 minutes approx.
Those familiar with Lemony Snicket’s dark children’s series will find themselves instantly at home with the TV series – very likely more so than could have been hoped of the Carrey-Streep-starring Silberling adaptation. After a deliberately half-hearted attempt to convince the chirpily-minded to switch off while they have the chance, a suited-and-booted Lemony Snicket (played here by a remarkably straight-laced Patrick Warburton) narrates the tragic experiences of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire; a pitifully-fated trio who’re condemned to live with their cruel (yet abysmally stagy) guardian, Count Olaf, after the prompt destruction of their parents in a mysterious fire.
As the dynamic, clash-beridden world of Sonnenfeld’s suspicious suburbia came slicing into view (via an assortments of rickety trolleyways and nostalgically clunky automobiles, no less), I feared that this fresh take on Daniel Handler’s (the writer behind Snicket himself) harrowing part-fantasy might well appear a re-dub of the 2004 Unfortunate Events; itself afflicted with an (ahem) unfortunately contrived impression that often rendered the affair…well…awkward…
My concern was nerfed before long, though; for as soon as the script picked up the pace (and it does so with a comic suddenness), it became apparent that Handler’s close involvement on both script and as executive producer was perhaps the best decision that could’ve been made. Not only are encounters here foreboding and (albeit elusively) poignant, they’re also mercilessly funny, juggling literary misunderstandings, smirking precociousness and astute pacing that laced Snicket’s acclaimed originals. There’s also quite a bit of word definition in there, should you be a fan of the narrator’s lexicographical obsessions.
It helps that the antique-laced environment within which the grinning strangeness takes place is as disquieting as the Baudelaires’ situation. The cute pastel cottages and picturesque cherry blossoms find themselves constantly juxtaposed with the depressing degeneration of the Count’s Edwardian mansion, and they only serve to embellish the smart wit and un-ignorable quirk of each of their Lovecraftian inhabitants.
If any moments happen to come off as awkward or contrived, it’s because the moment calls for it; and I’m delighted to report that most of them are handled by a terrifically Joan Cusack, whose inspiring ability to balance neurotic self-restraint with an odd over-familiarity never fails to summon a (thankfully genuine) chuckle as the series’ desperately naive Justice Strauss.
When it comes to the megalomaniacal menace himself – Count Olaf appears more self-absorbed buffoon than formidable patriarch. It’s perhaps not as much of an issue as I might have expected, although it does occasionally lead the Count’s unyielding pomp to feel a little one-sided, while the downtrodden kids lay upstaged at a distance. While his opening moments carry glimpses of the money-grabbing viciousness intended to heighten the (despite the theatrical flair) very real danger surrounding the kids’ uninvestigated adoption, Neil Patrick Harris’ Count doesn’t skimp on spectacle; something that sometimes threatened the sense of foreboding Olaf must also exude as a figure of nigh-on constant torment for the woe-befallen Baudelaires.
Doubtless, I enjoyed every moment those crackingly-expressive eyebrows (might Snicket interrupt here with a correcting ‘monobrow’?) were onscreen, some parts were so fabulously panto that he began to rub shoulders more with his performer’s catalogue of Broadway appearances than with the characters he was gloriously peacocking around. Still more doubtless, however, is that he’s obviously having a whale of a time (as are his cohort of lumbering ‘theator’ practitioners), and ultimately it’s difficult not to partake in Series’ gothic fun, even if it is at the occasional expense of the stoic Violet, Klaus and Sunny. And yes, there most certainly is a musical number in there.
But despite the occasional waver into ludicrousy, A Series of Unfortunate Events captures the snappy wit and lamentful mood of the beloved Snicket series with respectful faith, smartly-delivered and smirkingly commented-on by Warburton’s enduringly sober narration. The best part is that this first series only spans the first four stories in Snicket’s thirteen-book misadventure, and given the strong performances, sparring wit and enchantingly bleak visual design, I’d expect the poor Baudelaires’ misery has only just begun. Oh goody.