TV show in review: “A Series of Unfortunate Events”

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Nathaniel Nelson / Winonan

Every episode of Netflix’s new adaptation of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” begins with Neil Patrick Harris’ Count Olaf imploring the viewers to “look away” to avoid the darkness that will apparently unfold. This warning may be true, but the fact of the matter is that people are going to ignore it, and for good reason. Netflix’s adaptation is an often surreal, darkly gothic and irreverently comedic series that lives up to its title. While the lives of its stars are indisputably unfortunate, us viewers are far from it.

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” is based on the book series of the same name by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler), which follows the lives of the three Baudelaire children after their parents ‘unfortunate’ death in a fire. Violet, Klaus and Sunny are then sent to live with their estranged relative Count Olaf, who’s out for the Baudelaire fortune. The show separates each book into two-episode blocks, with the first season covering “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room,” “The Wide Window” and “The Miserable Mill.”

This isn’t the first time Snicket’s novels have been adapted. Nickelodeon took a swing at a film back in 2004, with Jim Carrey taking on the role of Count Olaf. While Carrey undoubtedly had the knack for over-acted comedy beats, the film as a whole missed the point. They skipped some of the story elements and darker moments in favor for heavier comedy elements, not to mention the pacing, which involved jamming three books into 107 minutes.

In comparison, the first season of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” packs four books into eight hour-long episodes, which lets the series stick much closer to the original books. Each book now has time to breathe and develop, instead of just acting like a quick detour. Every episode is laden with secrets, references and connections to the broader conspiracy of Lemony Snicket’s world, and even though this is just the beginning, it sets up a solid foundation for the series to really kick it into high gear.

While the Baudelaire children (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith) are the main characters, they are by no means the stars. The star of “Series” is undoubtedly Neil Patrick Harris’ Count Olaf. It’s impossible to find a scene unchewed. While keeping some much needed camp, Harris excels at actually making Olaf seem evil. Carrey’s Olaf from the 2004 film was just plain wacky, while Harris brings a bit more depth. Not too much depth, mind you, since Olaf is a wacky character at heart—but a twisted, borderline terrifying wacky. The rest of the performances pull their weight, with Patrick Warburton as the eponymous Lemony Snicket being another constant highlight.

Now, the series isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. For one, there are some major pacing issues. While not as jarring as the film, episodes can feel both empty and over-packed. Part of this is likely due to the nature of Snicket’s novels: He often breaks off into monologues detailing little idiosyncrasies in dialogue and wordplay. That doesn’t translate as well to the screen, and the show suffers for it. Also, by about the third book, there’s a definite sense of repetition. The show is inherently formulaic, with the same routine appearing again and again. By the fourth book that starts to change, but it takes a while to work up to it.

Overall, the first season of Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a remarkably solid start. There are some little problems that need to get ironed out in the next one, and the pacing is still a bit wacky, but at the very least the series feels like what it’s based on. It’s fun, charming, gloomy and miserable. Ignore the warning and give the show a shot. Though it’s flawed, chances are you’ll enjoy watching the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaires. 3.5/5

By Nathaniel Nelson

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