A Series of Unfortunate Events

Netflix’s adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events is pure Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler). The author wrote much of season one, based on the first four entries in his 13-part series, and he’s remained appropriately faithful to his melancholic stories. The Netflix series doesn’t shy away from the darker themes found in the Baudelaire children’s journey, but it does go for considerably more laughs than the 2004 film adaptation, making it an entertainingly peculiar mix of slapstick and sadness.

Below, read our A Series of Unfortunate Events review (Spoilers follow).

The story begins with narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) warning the audience about the children’s unpleasant adventures. This isn’t a story with a happy ending, he warns us, or a happy beginning, either. Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny Baudelaire (Presley Smith) are spending a day at the beach when Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), a banker with a neverending cough, arrives to inform them their parents have perished in a fire.

The heartbroken siblings are sent to live with their closest living relative — in the show, that means the relative living the closest to them — and that’s Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a terrible actor with an eye on the children’s fortune. The money isn’t available until Violet is of age, but Olaf and his equally untalented theater troupe will kill if they have to in order to steal the Baudelaire fortune.

A few short seconds after Patrick Warburton starts speaking in episode one, “A Bad Beginning,” it’s evident we’re in the hands of an outstanding narrator. Warburton’s deadpan delivery and expert timing works wonders with Handler’s humor and wordplay. You don’t want to miss a word Warburton says. The actor also quickly establishes Lemony Snicket’s signature empathy and sense of sorrow.

Neil Patrick Harris’ performance as the evil Count Olaf is hard to fully judge at first. The tone of A Series of Unfortunate Events and Harris’ performance take some adjusting to. The show is broader than the books, sometimes a little too much so, but showrunner Mark Hudis (True Blood) and Harris eventually finds a way to juggle all the different tones at play.

“The Reptile Room” is when the actor strikes a balance between silly and sinister. As Olaf is chasing the children around with the knife, despite how goofy he in his Dr. Stefano costume, it is a dark moment. The character’s foolishness doesn’t overshadow the fact that this still a guy chasing three kids around with a knife. The danger in this episode brings the series closer to the tone of Handler’s books. Uncle Monty’s body is not easy to see, either. Aasif Mandvi acts every bit as gregarious, lovely, and naive as Uncle Monty is in the book, and the “dramatic irony” joke before his death is, despite its gloominess, executed beautifully.

The show primarily rests on the shoulders of Weissman, Hynes, and Smith, who are comfortable in their roles, capturing the Baudelaire’s bravery, curiosity and resilience. As heightened and as strange as the world around them often is, their performances are always real. Because their performances are real, the outlandish characters, the splashy environments, and conflicts often are as well. A part of their predicament is few adults believe them when they’re in danger, so they must ask questions, speak up, and take action themselves, which isn’t a bad lesson to send to younger viewers. They’re great heroes, always searching for answers and looking out for each other.

Lemony Snicket

The Baudelaire children benefit from the time Netflix has given them. Two episodes cover each of the fairly short novels from the series, and that hour and a half is rarely padded. Except for part one of “The Wide Window” — which is slower in pace compared to other episodes — A Series of Unfortunate Events season one earns its running time. The 45-minute episodes allow more time for the Baudelaire children to gradually develop, for us to spend more fleeting moments with supporting characters, and for Lemony Snicket’s world to expand.

Executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black), who directed the first four episodes, makes Snicket’s world odd yet accessible. This is a world you go into and don’t forget once you’ve come out of it. The small touches, especially the easter eggs, just make it more specific and tangible. Visually, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a delight to the eyes, with its gorgeous sets and costumes. A tiny bit of the CGI, however, isn’t far off from the uncanny valley. CGI and babies don’t always mix well.

A major part of Lemony Snicket’s world is the V.F.D. organization. Their involvement in season one isn’t always satisfying. The payoff for Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders‘ characters, the Quagmire parents, is a good hook for season two and the next chapter, “The Austere Academy,” nicely teased by a nod to Vice Principal Nero. But after nearly eight hours of buildup to the reveal, since they haven’t really affected the Baudelaire children yet, it’s underwhelming. The Quagmire parents are almost too far removed from the main story. A new character and member of the organization, Jacquelyn (Sara Canning), is a charismatic standout in earlier episodes but ultimately disappears well before the ending. The series raises the right questions about the organization, but their introduction doesn’t always feel vital.

Still, when season one ends, it’s hard not to look forward to what’s next for the Baudelaire children and the V.F.D. organization. It helps that The Miserable Mill ends the season on a high note — more spot-on casting, some earned catharsis for the Baudelaire children (learning the truth about the fire), that final song, and James Newton Howard‘s delightful score capturing the hilarious and horrific repetition of the mill. Like the rest of season one, The Miserable Mill is more often than not a total joy, embodying the tone, spirit, and ideals of the series. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a big-hearted show that’s both goofy and dark.

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