Review: Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”

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The Netflix content studios continue to produce some of the highest-quality original content that you’re going to see on TV these days, and that now includes Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” It’s clear that Netflix has figured out the formula for success: bring in top acting and directing talent (in this case, Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, with Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket), give them some amazing source material to work with, and let them tell a story the way it should be told.

That approach works especially well with “A Series of Unfortunate Events” because Netflix has decided to re-tell all 13 novels in the famous young adult fiction series. So, Season 1 features eight episodes, adapting the first four books of the series. And Season 2 (already approved and on the way) will adapt books five through nine. Season 3, if it gets the green light from Netflix, will cover books ten through thirteen. The math here is simple: 2 episodes per book, so that gives plenty of time to tease out all the wonderfully “dark” and “awful” secrets that made the book series so popular.

What’s wonderful is that Netflix has worked with Daniel Handler (who wrote the books under the Lemony Snicket pseudonym) to reproduce faithfully the look and feel of the books. That means Lemony Snicket (in the form of Patrick Warburton) shows up as the narrator again and again throughout the episodes, reminding viewers of how “horrible” everything is and why it’s best to “turn back while [we] still can.” This perfectly captures the idea of the books. In fact, NPR has called this series “inspiringly faithful” to the original book series.

There’s also the matter of the stage sets, which look like nothing else you’ll see on TV today. The sets appear to be grayed out with a sepulchral filter, creating the right sense of doom and gloom. But then these sets are suffused with fairy tale-like colors. And then there are the CGI effects, which are so over-the-top at times that they are meant to remind the viewer: this is not really happening. All the gothic elements are there to make this a creepy tale of woe – a mansion that appears haunted, a mysterious outdoor maze and whipping winds on a lake. Not to mention some really quirky, if not spooky, characters.

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Some critics have complained about the tone and pacing of the show. And, indeed, there is quite a bit of variation in how long each episode runs. That might make binge-watching the show a little less formulaic than you might expect: some episodes clock in at 40 minutes or so, while others run well beyond an hour. So give yourself plenty of time to watch on any given night.

What matters here is the story of “woe” that we get to watch unfold, in different forms, throughout each of the episodes. Episodes 1 and 2 introduce us to the main characters (the Baudelaire children) and the evil Count Olaf, who is intent on stealing away their fortunes. We hear their tale of woe, and learn that Count Olaf hardly has their best intentions in mind.

If you haven’t read the series of books, the plotline goes basically like this: Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) Baudelaire had their home destroyed by a fire, in which their parents also died. Thus, they are basically orphans with no place to go, so they end up at the home of Count Olaf (played by Neil Patrick Harris in a campy, over-the-top manner).

He, of course, has other plans for them. If all goes according to plan, he will subject them to a life of servitude and steal away their fortune. In Episode 2, we learn the full evilness of this plan – Olaf plans to acquire the fortune by marrying young Violet. When the Baudelaire children try to warn the family banker (Mr. Poe) about this, chaos ensues.

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That same plotline, in varying forms, plays out in each of the next episodes as well. For example, in Episodes 3 and 4 (“The Reptile Room”), the Baudelaire children are sent to live with their uncle Monty Montgomery (played by Aasif Mandvi), but we learn of an evil plan by Count Olaf to use a dangerous viper to kill the children and take away their money. And in Episodes 5 and 6 (“The Wide Window”), the children are sent to live with their Aunt Josephine, but once again, things are not as they first appear. Count Olaf keeps appearing again and again, in different forms.

The question that you should be asking right about now is the following: Is this show really for young adults or for older adults? After all, even though the show’s heroes and heroines are young kids, there’s a lot going on here that might be hard for young kids to fully grasp. Dead parents, evil guardians and gothic gloom?

What keeps the whole Netflix original series together is the role of Count Olaf, played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris. Harris finds the perfect notes to hit in his portrayal of the Count, making him the right mix of “campy” and “dastardly.” There’s also a bit of humor in everything that he does – as well as an accompanying amount of weirdness. But his endless attempts to don disguise after disguise in his pursuit of the Baudelaire children gives him a sort of cartoonish villain character. (Keep in mind, the original casting called for Jim Carrey in this role, so you can get an idea of what the show’s producers had in mind)

If you’ve already seen the 2004 film version of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (starring Jim Carrey, Jude Law and Meryl Streep), it’s time to forget everything and start over. There’s just so much more you can pack into an 8-episode TV show than you can a 2-hour movie.

Ever since “A Series of Unfortunate Events” premiered on Netflix on January 13, viewers and critics have been near unanimous in their praise: it currently has a rating of 8.5/10.0 on IMDb and a 92% freshness score on Rotten Tomatoes. If you loved the whole book series, you’ll love the Netflix TV adaption of this young adult fiction series. The “Series of Unfortunate Events” is not so unfortunate as its title might suggest. It might just lead you on a wonderful new journey.

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