I was in middle school when the Series of Unfortunate Events books became popular and I can clearly recall my English teacher recommending the books to my class, I believe he even read a chapter to us before the end of the lesson. The books quickly became popular amongst the other children but I must admit that, whilst they certainly seemed good, I never got around to reading them. I did manage to catch the 2004 film adaptation starring Jim Carrey but that’s about as far as my knowledge of the books goes. I was intrigued when Netflix announced it would be adapting the show, even more so when it was announced the actor Neil Patrick Harris would be taking on the role of the devious antagonist Count Olaf.
Now the first season is officially available to watch on Netflix, I decided to check out the first few episodes to see if this new adaptation is any good, if it will please fans of the books, and if it will be as entertaining to those who are unfamiliar with the original source material. I am pleased to report that not only did the show meet my expectations, it surpassed them.
Most viewers will first be struck by its distinct style, which is what you might get if you mixed Tim Burton’s style with Wes Anderson’s, that said, the show’s visuals still manages to feel fresh and I never felt it was simply copying the aforementioned. The events take place in a world that is both very similar to our own but also very different, a sort of strange version of a reality stuck in a gothic 1950’s where everything is a little bit uncanny valley.
For those unfamiliar, the story centres around the Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. Disaster strikes as the children’s rich parents perish in a fire that destroys their mansion and leaves them with nothing but an inheritance that will come into effect once Violet turns eighteen. As if this wasn’t unfortunate enough, the sinister Count Olaf is willing to stop at nothing to claim the children’s fortune for himself. Posing as their uncle, the Count takes custody of the children and immediately starts putting them to work in restoring his dilapidated home. The children then work to free themselves from the Count and put an end to his evil schemes but, as the series’ name suggests, this is no fairytale and the Baudelaire children will have to endure terrible hardships before they can have their happy ending…if there even is one.
The opening credits to any series is a way for audiences to get a feel for what’s in store and boy does A Series of Unfortunate Events nail it. Plinky plonky music plays whilst a grand plan is mapped out on screen, the lyrics even implore the reader to “look away” as “every single episode is nothing but dismay.” It’s clear from the get go that the atmosphere and dark humour of the books is taking centre stage, a fact that will no doubt be appreciated by fans of the books who may have feared this adaptation would be a cheap cash in on a popular franchise.
Casting children in shows and movies can often be hit and miss but the Netflix seems to have followed in the footsteps of Stranger Things when it comes to casting young talent. Violet is the eldest at fourteen, Klaus is twelve, and Sunny is a baby. The three youngsters do an excellent job of portraying children who’s lives are being manipulated by adults, many of whom don’t seem to have their best interests at heart. It reminded me of that feeling we all get as children when we’re frustrated at the fact we’re not old enough to be in charge of our own lives. The children are also among the few characters in the series who seem to be as aware of the absurdity of their situation as the audience and their deadpan reactions to the strange characters they meet are very comical. The show also features the supposed author Lemony Snicket (excellently played by Patrick Warburton) as the narrator. This may seem to break the golden rule of showing rather than telling but the fact that the narrator becomes weaved into the overall plot allows it to avoid such a mistake.
The cast is certainly a strong one but it is arguably Neil Patrick Harris’ portrayal of Count Olaf that truly steals the show. Slapstick, funny, stupid, deluded, and yet somehow still very menacing, Harris’ is a joy to watch as he embodies his character. Jim Carrey did an excellent job as the Count in the film, and I was doubtful as to whether Harris could hope to match up but he absolutely does. Not only is his acting excellent but the physicality he brings to the roll is great to watch. Olaf comes across like a madman who is refusing to take his meds. His character is almost schizophrenic and it seems impossible to predict how he’ll react at any given moment. One minute he’ll be murderously threatening and the next he’ll be insisting that, were he to give up acting, he might become a model. He’s the kind of villain you love to hate and I look forward to seeing his character become even more unhinged as the series progresses.
I’ve greatly enjoyed my time with the show’s first few episodes and I will definitely be watching the rest of the series. I would recommend this to both hardcore fans of the books or total newcomers. Children will no doubt enjoy the pantomime villainy of Olaf as well as the courage and ingenuity of the children. Older viewers will be taken by the show’s creepy aesthetics and the dark comedy. If you’re looking for a new show to binge then you should certainly check this out.
The first season of A Series of Unfortunate Events is available now on Netflix. A second season is currently in the works.