Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events Review

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Fortunately, these events make for a great new series.

The catchy theme song to Netflix’s adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events addresses the audience directly, as Neil Patrick Harris warns viewers to “look away” from the horrible proceedings about to unfold. But to skip out on the exaggerated, macabre, and meta delights of this eight-episode series would be an unfortunate event in and of itself.

Bringing to life the first four books in Snicket’s (the penname of author Daniel Handler) self-aware series, Netflix’s take, which hits the service on January 13, on the horrible lives of the three Baudelaire orphans captures the hilarious, dark, and sweet tone of the books while imbuing it with an arresting visual style and charming performances.

Bouncing from one caretaker to another as death and devastation follows them, the Baudelaires — Violet, Klaus, and Sunny — are constantly trying to escape Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), their first guardian after the children’s home burns down and their parents seemingly die. Olaf desperately wants the Baudelaires’ inherited fortune, and the failing actor enlists his theater troupe in his various, murderous schemes to do so.

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Each book is split into two hourlong episodes, functioning almost as mini-movies that fit the Netflix model comfortably well. None of Snicket’s books were particularly dense, but the extra time allows the show to indulge in the tiny details of the world, like character quirks and silly dialogue exchanges, that the 2004 movie adaptation simply didn’t have the time for. (That movie adapted the first three books into an under-two hour film.) Watching two, or even one, at a time offers enough of a cohesive story to satisfy those not looking to binge all eight episodes in a day. And the show is perhaps best served with some time in between each two-part tale. While each book brings with it new visual touches, wacky performances, and ridiculous Count Olaf costumes, the rinse-and-repeat plot points can make the viewing experience occasionally repetitive.

Luckily, the show’s style and cast stave off any lingering monotony. From the gothic nightmare of Count Olaf ‘s home in “The Bad Beginning” to the brightly lit reptile room of Montgomery Montgomery (Aasif Mandvi) and beyond, the uniformly dazzling yet unique scenery keeps the series continually fresh. Locations often operate as elaborate stage productions, mixing practical design, CGI, and beautiful set dressings to create a fascinating sense of space that feels both contemporary and yet out of time. Aunt Josephine’s modern, minimalist home is just as memorable as the decaying, cramped rooms of Count Olaf’s estate.

The dazzling yet unique scenery keeps the series looking continually fresh.

Every new locale not only offers a refresh of the show’s visual palette but also a chance for an increasing number of wonderfully-exaggerated performances. The actors often feel like theater players projecting from on stage to an audience they can’t see, and the results are practically all a joy to watch. Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, Alfre Woodard, Catherine O’Hara, and more all bring quirky flair to their characters. Adult characters are often quite dumb, or at least oblivious to the intelligence of the Baudelaire children, in the series, but the comedy that comes from their ignorance fits the meticulously crafted, and often unforgiving, world Snicket has created.

At the heart of the show is the Baudelaires, of course, and Louis Hynes and Malina Weissman as Klaus and Violet, respectively, imbue the proceedings with heart and an emotional through line that never feels at odds with the exaggerated world around them. Hynes captures Klaus’ bookish earnestness and Smith finds the right level of determination and leadership as the crafty, mechanically inclined Violet.

The youngest Baudelaire, the baby Sunny (Presley Smith), is largely a source of amusing cutaway gags and an amusing basis for Count Olaf’s hatred. She is also, unfortunately, one of the series’ few visual missteps. Though not in every scene, Smith is clearly a partial or full CGI insert, often when she has to be on screen with other characters in intense sequences. The obvious production issue of having a baby in such precarious positions aside, it’s still disappointing if only for how distractingly it stands out in comparison to the otherwise visually stunning show.

What never falters, however, is the foil to the Baudelaires’ plight — Harris’ Count Olaf. The How I Met Your Mother actor is ideally suited to the short-tempered failed actor with a flair for the always dramatic. He’s menacing, hilarious, and somehow just smarter than every other adult to get by on the thinnest of disguises. Each change in source material allows Harris to take on different personas, each more ridiculous than the last, but he is always a joy as Harris commits fully to the role.

But Harris isn’t the only adult star who brings the tale to life. Patrick Warburton stars as Lemony Snicket himself. Snicket often opens and/or closes episodes, explaining how, from a point in the future, he’s been investigating the case of the Baudelaires and the many mysteries associated with it. Warburton offers the ideal deadpan foil to Olaf’s bombastic villain while also providing a wealth of emotionally resonant commentary on the story, its themes of loss and struggle, and how we cope with those things.

Snicket starring in the series also allows the self-reflective touches of the books to translate to the show. Warburton’s guiding figure often interjects himself into the show, physically appearing in scenes unbeknownst to the Baudelaires, offering an opportunity for fun visual transitions to new locations, and simply bringing more levity to the proceedings, despite his insistence that the series is anything but. (As Snicket did in the book, the on-screen version will often give charming and exceedingly scenario-specific definitions for words to describe the orphans’ plight.)

The essence of the books is captured so well in large part thanks to series author Daniel Handler actually handling writing duties for a number of episodes. Imbued with light touches of an overarching mystery that keeps things tied together, Handler and producer Barry Sonnenfeld’s use the charming foundation of the books to make an equally enjoyable on-screen experience. From every adult’s need to explain words to the Baulderlaire they clearly already understand — good grammar is even a defining character trait for one adult — to the wacky and grisly unraveling of affairs at the end of each subplot, Netflix’s series should please fans looking for something true to the source material. At the very least, I was.

But even for those who have never opened a book filled with Unfortunate Events, Netflix’s series is welcoming to newcomers, opening up its mystery box of oddly charming despair from the first episode and layering it with performances, writing, and direction that continues to be captivating until the season’s end.

The Verdict

There’s a genuine glee in watching A Series of Unfortunate Events unfold, as ironic as that might sound to those unfamiliar with the material. Netflix’s adaptation is a smart approach to tackling the first four books in the franchise, with beautiful set design that is a joy to watch and self-aware scripting that should please word nerds. Though the cyclical plot can sporadically be, the spectacular cast and lingering mysteries are consistently engaging and, quite simply, fun. As much as the show might jokingly protest, it would truly be unfortunate to not watch these events unfold.