of unfortunate events
Look away, look away, this show will wreck your evening, your whole life and your day, every single episode is nothing but dismay, so look away, look away, look away. These are the lyrics to the opening scene and theme song of the new Netflix series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Based on the book series written by Daniel Handler, who uses the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, this show will achieve the opposite of wrecking your evening, and every episode is nothing but a true delight to witness.
Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, K. Todd Freeman, Presley Smith, and with special appearances by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders, the series delivers a stellar cast to excited fans who may have previously felt discontent at the previous attempt to bring the beloved children’s books characters to life: namely, Brad Silberling’s 2004 feature film starring Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Timothy Spall, and Jude Law as Lemony Snicket. The criticism at the time was first, that some of the casting choices were unfitting, but more importantly, that the movie was too short to fully develop the stories it proposed it would tell.
For those unfamiliar, Unfortunate Events tells the story, over the course of 13 books, of a trio of orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire (Weissman, Hynes, Smith), whose parents’ fiery death leaves their children with a large inheritance. A family relative, Count Olaf (Harris), aims to acquire it any cost, and in search of the orphan’s fortune, Count Olaf, an out-of-work, talentless actor with an ankle tattoo, and his theater troupe constantly cause havoc for the children, making them go to extreme lengths to escape from dangerous and unfortunate situations and chasing them away from different relatives who are assigned the task of taking the orphans in. The manager of the orphan’s fortune, Mr. Poe (Todd Freeman), is oblivious to the dangers and evil plots of Olaf and Co., placing the children in the hands of various (at times incompetent) guardians throughout the series. The book’s “author”, Lemony Snicket (Warburton), serves as narrator to the Baudelaire adventures.
The series, although intended for children, is fit for anyone interested in exploring themes of loss, abuse, morality, and human nature. Though the 2004 movie was geared towards children, it seems fair to assume that the Netflix show aims to target not only viewers who remember the series from their childhood, but also those people who were too young or too old when they were first published between 1999-2006.
The show, produced by Harris, is visually stunning and an updated version of its cinematic predecessor. If the 2004 film felt Tim Burton-esque, the Netflix version feels like Wes Anderson gone emo. And that’s a necessity for this project specifically, for a key component of the Baudelaire universe is the inability for the reader, or viewer, to be able to find themselves in a known place or time. We do not know the geographical location or the year of any of these events, and it all gets confusing when the orphans use both horse-drawn carriages and beautiful vintage 50s cars as modes of transportation.
The series follows the first four books, dedicating two episodes to each book. Thus the setting changes every two episodes, but the aesthetics invoke a similar experience throughout all eight episodes—a strange, visually enthralling world that more closely resembles a Dr. Seuss live-action movie than a modern fantasy film. Well, if The Cat in the Hat were a sad orphan.
There are a few musical numbers, a great deal of word definitions, lots of funny moments, and, in an unexpected twist, the unraveling and parallel narration of the some of the stories the 2004 film never covered. Specifically, the tales of some secret organizations (told in the later books of the series) which are consequential to the stories of the Baudelaires, their fortune, and their parents’ death.
The cast pulls off the book personalities to a tee, unlike the 2004 film. But aside from the strength of the main cast, the secondary characters are really what add a sense of fun and unexpectedness to the show. These additions range from the always talented Joan Cusack portraying the giddy but lovely Justice Strauss, Aasif Mandvi as the farcical reptile-loving Uncle Monty, and Cleo King as the cheerfully conniving newspaper editor, Mrs. Poe. These characters are so fantastical, that watching the show really becomes an instance of finding one’s self in another world.
Finding one’s self in another world is the biggest achievement of Unfortunate Events. The storyline is interesting, but perhaps not riveting. The characters are fascinating, but not wholly multifaceted. (One note is that Patrick Harris portrays Olaf’s evilness as a constant, never causing one to even want to feel empathy for the at-times comical man, as can often happen with a well-developed villain). The dialogue is clever, but not the smartest on television.
Yet, the show is binge-worthy. Tune in for 50-60 minutes and you are sure to find yourself not being able to look away, look away—for this strange world is just interesting, enchanting, and twisted enough that you don’t want to miss it.