Weekly Watch: ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’
Caelin Miltko | Monday, January 30, 2017
After the 2004 movie rendition of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Netflix’s announcement of a TV version was both exciting and unnerving. The movie was a bit of a flop — and despite Netflix’s reputation for well-made original series, it was not clear this version would be much better.
Still, there were signs of hope (a word which refers here to the quality of the series, not the fate of the protagonists). The previews showing Neil Patrick Harris’ Count Olaf were perfectly creepy and the children appeared wonderfully innocent. As a Twitter user described it, it’s like children from a Wes Anderson film are caught in a Tim Burton film.
The first season follows the adventures of Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) Baudelaire through the first four books: “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room,” “The Wide Window” and “The Miserable Mill.” Like the book series, the show is narrated by Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) and each newly-titled episode is dedicated to a mysterious Beatrice.
Warburton is particularly wonderful as Snicket, breaking into the stories with clever asides, reminders that nothing good will happen and personal narratives that appear to have no connection to the stories of the Baudelaire orphans.
As Count Olaf, Harris continually steals the show. As the children’s first absolutely terrible guardian, he vacillates between tyranny and negligence, offering up each new obstacle to the children with perfect absurdist villainy. When he finally loses the children and is forced to create new characters to get close to him, Harris’ renditions of Olaf’s acting is just the right amount of overdone, allowing the viewer to participate in the children’s dismay every time an adult fails to recognize him.
Though the series follows the book plotlines relatively closely, there are some major differences. Most notably, at the end of the first episode Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders’ characters are introduced. They are called only “Father” and “Mother,” and their plot revolves around getting back to “the children” (after they’ve ended up in Peru).
Their connection to the Baudelaires is emphasized by their membership in the mysterious organization that seems intent on protecting the orphans. Mr. Poe’s talented secretary Jacquelyn (Sarah Canning), Uncle Monty (Aasif Mandvi) and Aunt Josephine (Alre Woodard) are all clearly members.
Various symbols worked into the scenery and props emphasize the existence of this mystery organization. These details are part of what makes the settings of each episode perfect for the series. Wherever the Baudelaires go, whether it is Count Olaf’s dilapidated mansion, Aunt Josephine’s foreboding house or the nearly-abandoned mill, the settings are the kind of exaggerated cartoon-like creations that emphasize the absurdist nature of the stories.
Like most of the details in the show, the theme song works to further the plot and conceits of the narrative. It is a repeated refrain reminding the viewer to “look away” and that nothing good will ever happen to the Baudelaire children. It is one of those songs that stays in your head for days after you listen to it. If anything about this show needs a warning, it is this theme song and its ability to sneak into your life.
For all that it is well-made,“A Series of Unfortunate Events” will always be marked by certain pitfalls, primarily that the theme song and Lemony Snicket are quite right (a word which here means that their warnings should be heeded). Nothing particularly good ever happens to the Baudelaires, that which is good is always short-lived and there are few signs of hope for improvement in their condition. If the viewer is willing to stomach that, the Netflix series is definitely worth a watch. If not, she should probably stick with a fluffy comedy.