TV Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events
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The Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events is the much needed vindication for book fans after the disaster that was Jim Carrey’s movie from 2004.
The first season consists of eight episodes and adapts the first four books of the 13. A Series of Unfortunate Events was renewed for a second season, which is planned to consist of ten episodes that adapt books five to nine of the novel series, and a third season is expected to adapt the remaining books.
After dying in a mysterious house fire, the Baudelaires leave their children Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) a sizable fortune, which should remain in the bank until the eldest, Violet, comes of age. Before that, they’re placed under the care of their distant relative Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), because he lives the closest to the burnt down Baudelaire mansion.
Count Olaf, however, is an actor and a horrible being who doesn’t care about the children at all, and only wants their fortune.
The first two episodes (or the first book) present his truly genius ploy to marry Violet (no matter how gross that sounds) and thus obtain the fortune before she comes of age.
The only thing that saves her is her brother Klaus pouring over tons of legal literature and putting together an argument that adults barely understand themselves.
Neil Patrick Harris is unrecognisable in the props of Count Olaf, but his voice remains unchanged and sounds out of place in such a bleary setting. Fortunately, he gets to speak in different accents all the time, so that effect doesn’t last for long.
He is a terrible, amoral character, who toes the line between the truly terrible and darkly humorous, something Jim Carrey failed to do – his character came off as a sillier version.
In the Netflix series, there is one truly chilling scene that shows Count Olaf as what he truly is, an abusive and manipulative man. He strikes Klaus so hard he hits the wall, and the moment is given the gravitas that it needs.
After Olaf’s (first) failed attempt to obtain the fortune, the Baudelaires go through a few legal guardians while trying to escape his, uncover the mystery of their parents, and convince adults to believe them.
One of the most poignant messages of the book series – that is, adults are more useless at helping the children with their circumstances than the children are able to help themselves – is wonderfully communicated in the show.
Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), for example is a banker, plagued by an incredibly annoying cough, who is in charge of the Baudelaires’ fortune until they come of age. Despite Count Olaf’s obsession with the children and all the warnings they give him and, he refuses to believe them purely on the basis that they are presumably too young to understand the way the adult world works.
In the show, he gets tricked by Count Olaf to place the children in his face, since he is the “closest living relative”, as in the one that lives the closest. From then on, his only purpose in the show is to herd the children to their next guardian, and to gullibly believe all adults around, most of whom turn out to be Count Olaf in disguise.
From the point of view of a young adult, that’s oddly comforting: even if university or work gets too tough, at least you’re able to recognise Count Olaf in a wig.
Since this is supposed to be a children’s book, it’s important to look at how socially aware the show is. Even if the show is set in an ambiguous time period, there aren’t any harmful stereotypes perpetuated by anyone. Klaus himself says simple things that really shouldn’t be so radical as they are, such as “Plenty of boys enjoy playing with dolls.”
In addition to that, the women in the show are diverse and tri-dimensional. The older Baudelaire sister, Violet, enjoys building things, complex engineering and taking care of her siblings, while Sunny manages to be sassiest infant on screen: the scene where she wins at poker is a cinematic masterpiece. The rest of the reoccurring female characters are nuanced and carry their own plot.
In a lovely throwback to the books, every episode where the orphans move on to their next guardian (signifying the start of another book’s adaptation) starts with the dedication cited from the respective book.
Each book is dedicated to Beatrice Baudelaire, Snicket’s ex-fiancée, who later had the Baudelaire children, and while all of the dedications are witty, the first one is probably the most memorable: “To Beatrice – darling, dearest, dead.”
That dedication pretty much sums up the tone of the show.
While nothing special in particular, the cinematography of the show is somewhat reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s style – tight camera movements, symmetric shots and limited colour palette. This style makes it stand out among other young adult and children’s books turned into movies.
On that topic, the series also accomplishes what many other similar books fail to do – which is involve an omnipresent author, who’s also narrating and participating in the story, in the cinematic story.
Lemony Snicket is the pen name of author Daniel Handler, but it’s also the name of a person in the Series of Unfortunate Events, who’s made it his personal mission to find out what happened to the Baudelaire orphans for “many personal and legal reasons”.
While the same character from the 2004 movie only sits in his tower, typing away on his typewriter, this version, played by Patrick Warburton, stops the story whenever he likes and even actively participates in the plot.
That creates a sense of surrealism, and a blurring of the lines of fiction and audience, since he actively talks to us watchers. In fact, the first trailer that Netflix was dropped consisted of Snicket warning us away from this tragic tale, in a curious case of reverse psychology that spurs us on and keeps us glued to the screen.
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