A Series of Unfortunate Events starts with a warning – look away, the story that follows is full of woe and misfortune, and there are no happy endings here. “This show will wreck your evening, your whole life and your day. Every single episode is nothing but dismay,” warns Neil Patrick Harris in the opening credits, and he isn’t wrong. But we suggest you ignore his advice and dive right in.
The Netflix show is adapted from the 13-book series A Series of Unfortunate Events. First published in 1999, the novels about three unfortunate children, written by Daniel Handler under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, have amassed a massive readership among young ones and grown-ups alike. The novels were made into a film by the same name in 2004. The Jim Carrey starrer failed to launch a film franchise, but the Netflix series fares much better.
Produced by Neil Patrick Harris, co-written by Daniel Handler, and directed by Barry Sonnenfield, A Series of Unfortunate Events tells the story of the Baudelaire kids – the 14-year-old inventor Violet (Malina Weissman), the 12-year-old avid reader and researcher Klauss (Louis Hynes), and their quick-witted baby sister Sunny (Presley Smith). They lose their parents in a mysterious fire. This first unfortunate event is followed by many others. The children are handed over to one inept guardian after another by the naive but well-intentioned banker Mr Poe (Todd Freeman), even as the devious Count Olaf (Harris) and his henchmen try to get their hands on the children’s vast fortune.
The first season covers the first four books, The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, and The Miserable Mill. Each book is spread over two 45-minute episodes, giving the many intricacies and larger themes time and opportunity to develop into something spectacular. As Handler is involved with the creative process, the series is a near-perfect adaptation of his vision. The few changes made from the original only add to the plot in the new format.
The books, though fraught with misfortune, have endured as classics because they view children as creative, intelligent and brave individuals. The Baudelaires constantly employ their unique skills to survive Olaf and his evil schemes – decoding cryptic letters, playing poker, or inventing life-saving apparatuses using an old pasta maker. The grown-ups fail to see through Olaf’s obvious disguises owing to arrogance and prejudice or simply because they assume they “know better”.
In the background, a larger mystery is unfolding. This one contains spy glasses, secret societies, and trap doors in lush garden mazes. The secret society VFD is mentioned only in the later books, but the Netflix series introduces this plot element early on.
A significant change is the amount of screen time given to Lemony Snicket. In the books, Snicket is a prescient narrator who is almost always in the background. In the TV series, Patrick Warburton’s Snicket is an effective and intrinsic part of the narrative, constantly warning the audience about the misery that is to follow, and adding context and relevance about his own interest in the story. Warburton adds gravity to the whimsical show, which is be anchored by his heavy baritone.
Neil Patrick Harris is an absolute riot as the eccentric and horrible Count Olaf. Harris adds humour to the bleak state of affairs, but we are never too far removed from the abuse and vile threat he embodies. He kills without remorse, and more than once. You do hate him, but in the way you dislike a villain in a children’s novel. He appears in several disguises – he is a herpetologist’s assistant, a sail-boat captain, and a receptionist. Each new character gives the brilliant Harris an opportunity to shine.
The steampunk-ish misadventures of the Baudelaire trio are part Wes Anderson and part Tim Burton, but all Barry Sonnenfield too. Production designer Bo Welch, who worked with Sonnenfield on Men in Black and Wild Wild West and is a long-time Burton collaborator, has created a delightfully ornate, hyper-colorful universe. The design borders on the unreal, like the product of a child’s imagination – Olaf’s Gothic mansion is dark and decrepit, while Mr Poe’s office is a bland white room with cabinets from ceiling to floor.
The series is full of amusing pop culture references. Olaf talks about the convenience of long-form television, a movie theatre plays Men in Beige, and Mr Poe yells “It’s off-book” when the series takes a turn away from the novels. There are references to real places such as Arizona or Peru, but also a fictional Lake Lachrymose and rooms full of crazy reptiles. The script, like the books, is beautifully bizarre.