A Series of Unfortunate Events
Reader, if you know what’s good for you, click out of this review. This review goes into detail on the Netflix series dedicated to the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire orphans and their struggles with the villainous Count Olaf. If you read any further, that means you approve of terrible tales involving mistreated children and treacherous villains.
Still here? then you’ll be happy to hear that A Series of Unfortunate Events is another terrific addition to the Netflix library as well as a top-notch adaptation of the beloved book series. The eight episode series is bolstered by a strong supporting cast, great visual flair, memorable music, and a standout performance from Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf.
Starting off, the plot follows the book series very closely. The eight episodes within Season 1 covers books 1-4 (with each book getting two episodes each). The plot involves the three Baudelaire children (Klaus, Violet, and Sunny) losing their parents in a terrible fire. They are informed of this by their parents’ investment banker, Mr. Poe, who then takes the children to their next closest relative who may serve as their new guardian. That first guardian is a unibrowed actor named Count Olaf, and he becomes the main antagonist of the entire series. Olaf takes an intense interest in the children because the children will inherit their family’s massive fortune once Violet turns eighteen. This, in turn, makes Count Olaf desperate to get his hands on that fortune, which leads to much of the series’ events.
The story is told in a standard way, but comes with a narrator who helps explain necessary background information and adds plenty of humorous moments throughout. This narrator is Lemony Snicket (played by Patrick Warburton) and he is the resident expert on the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaires. Through the first six episodes, you may notice that they follow a relatively similar base structure in which the Baudelaire children move from guardian to guardian, hoping to find a permanent home. It isn’t until the last two episodes of the season that the base structure changes up and helps bring some freshness to the two-part season finale. That being said, after powering through those first five episodes (it IS Netflix after all, so you’re definitely going to binge-watch this), you’ll notice a sense of repetition set in that took away from my enjoyment a bit. I’ve read all the books (although it’s been almost a decade since I finished the series) so I was reminded of how repetitive the stories can feel right around the third book/episodes 4 and 5.
However, this doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the show itself as the repetition is the only slight issue with the storytelling and stories themselves. Overall, the plots retain the original books’ inventiveness and unique feeling throughout every single episode.
On the acting side, all three of the kids do a quality job maintaining the show’s intrigue levels and ensuring that these three are characters we want to stick with for the duration of this series. They don’t quite knock it out of the park (as a comparison, I’d say the Stranger Things kids still remain the standard) but they do a great job on their own and stand their ground when sharing scenes with the other excellent cast members.
In terms of standouts, Neil Patrick Harris’s turn as Count Olaf reigns supreme. He plays the role to its full potential using both the great writing and his own comedic talents to make an antagonist that viewers are happy to see reappear. He nails the comedic beats, his many different alter-egos are appropriately unique and offer up different takes compared to what Jim Carrey brought to the table back in 2004. He’s increasingly threatening as the show goes on (although the same cannot always be said for his henchmen) but he never loses that comedic side to become full-on villain. Although this more-comedic take may be different from what book-readers may expect (Count Olaf doesn’t have quite as much of a sense of humor in the books than he does here) and it may not be a preferred choice, this Olaf maintains the show’s strong (and well-done) comedic tone that contains all kinds of humor (especially dark humor).
Now, in regards to Harris vs. Carrey, that’ll have to be your own opinion. Both of them have plenty of worthy merits, so it’s difficult to say which one is really ‘better.’ If I’d make the decision, I would have to go with Harris because it felt more like Harris became Count Olaf whereas Carrey seemed to turn Count Olaf into a version of himself.
Patrick Warburton is the other standout as Lemony Snicket with his PERFECT deadpan delivery and exceptional ability to play the straight-man to Count Olaf’s larger-than-life personality. The way he maintains his presence within each scene is both a testament to the characterization of Snicket’s character as well as Warburton’s superb delivery of both the comedic and the more serious lines.
The rest of the supporting cast is just as excellent. K. Todd Freeman’s Mr. Poe is perfectly played as the gullible (sometimes maddening) and innocent-minded banker that attempts to take care of the Baudelaires through their plentiful struggles but never succeeds in doing so. Each of Olaf’s quirky theatre troupe members were also enjoyable as their different personalities helped make each scene involving just the group members avoid that one-note feeling that other movies/shows couldn’t avoid quite as effectively.
Each of the guardians and other prominent side characters were well-implemented as actors/actresses like Alfre Woodard, Joan Cusack, Catherine O’ Hara, Don Johnson, and Aasif Mandvi offered something fresh within their respective episodes. They are what helps prop the show even further and help add a sense of legitimacy to the episodes (whenever Olaf or Snicket weren’t onscreen) along with their faithful portrayals of the original books’ characters.
On the visual side, the show utilizes both gloomy color palettes AND rich, vibrant colors to establish the atmosphere in an immediately effective manner. Barry Sonnenfeld’s direction certainly helps establish this from the start of the series and it continues throughout every single episode. Unlike the movie version, which felt too colorless, colors are used effectively (but not excessively) and help add an extra dose of personality to every scene. Although Sonnenfeld doesn’t direct every single episode, his presence continues to be felt through the concluding episodes as the visuals are still eye-catching. Much of the show’s backdrops are mainly green screen and it works out just fine for the most part. However, there are times where the green screen gets to be quite noticeable and it can get a bit distracting.
Finally, the music for the show has to be praised. At many points, it sounds like the music would be perfect for a Wes Anderson movie, and it’s a perfect fit. Starting with the perfectly-suited “Look Away” intro theme (in which Neil Patrick Harris does the lead vocals), the superb music is immediately apparent and memorable. James Newton Howard led the charge with the music and he does a superb job of providing extremely well-fitted background music to accompany both the visuals and the tone.