The last time we saw A Series of Unfortunate Events on screen was in the 2004 film; receiving a mixed reception, with 68 on IMDB and 72% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was however, utterly forgettable. So in preparation for the series’ return via Netflix I sat down to watch it to figure out why, it only took me ten minutes. The entire thing tries to be too realistic and grim, this might seem an odd complaint about something called A Series of Unfortunate Events, but Daniel Handlers (alias, Lemony Snicket) work always stood out because it was full of the surreal, making it more ‘real’ took the staying power of his work away; coupled with the way it rushed through three books in less than two hours, the film wasn’t able to be anything special. These aren’t mistakes the new series makes, each of the four books that comprise this first series is given over an hour of surreal fun to shine and each character that comes up is an absurd caricature (with the exception of two of the children).
The surrealist leanings of the show feel jarring and may put some viewers off (as it very nearly did me), but it grows on you over time as you adjust. This is one of the great strengths of the series that’s so close to working against it, it is so radically different in its presentation that it’s almost off-putting at first. The dialogue is ripped straight out of the books, and is the wonderful blend of dry wit, farce, and occasional insightful comment that leave them standing out. But it’s a far cry from natural speech and is certainly strange to hear. Alongside the over-the-top silly mannerisms that every character adopts, and plays perfectly straight, it becomes almost enough to get confused into thinking the series is full of horrible acting from something with a B-movie script. Really it’s anything but; the series is closer to the ‘Airplane’ than it is to ‘Manos: Hand of Fate’.
Stand out performances from Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, and Usman Ally as Hook-Handed Man that epitomise the series’ dedication to the surreal appear in every episode, as Olaf hunts for the Baudelaire children and their fortune. I’m a sucker for everything with Harris in it, and giving him musical numbers (three throughout the series if you include the tune during the opening credits) and a chance to perform in drag only sweetens the deal, and as usual he doesn’t disappoint. Also appearing in every episode is K. Todd Freeman as Mr. Poe: the overly optimistic and utterly oblivious banker who fully embodies the ‘adults never listen to children’ trope, allowing the plot to keep flailing from one unfortunate event to the next.
Patrick Warburton appears multiple times in every episode as Lemony Snicket as part of cut away scenes, or in the foreground to provide narration. Warburton is a delight here, channeling Rod Sterling’s narrator from The Twilight Zone and being put into scenes with green screens in the same caliber as a weatherman, the obvious post-effect only adding to the surreal nature of the show. Warburton is one of many self-aware ‘winks’ at the audience, which also include an amazing riff in the second episode about the strength of long form television versus movies, and some fourth wall breaking by various characters. Other less substantial parts are played by some instantly recognisable actors, Will Arnett, Cobie Smulders, and Rhys Darby, as well as others, all make appearances, which speaks volumes about the pull of Netflix and the series.
The Baudelaire children are the main characters of the series; the youngest (Presley Smith) is yet another strange character, her baby noises are subtitled so we can understand, she can play poker, and eat rocks; the two eldest Baudelaire children: Violet (Malina Weissman) and Kalus (Louis Hynes), are the only characters that we might be in danger of taking seriously. If you’ll forgive the meta-analysis of the series for a second, this is because the series is from their point of view. The distortions are because that’s how a child would see the world in that situation. Of course the banker who puts them in the care of an abusive madman is oblivious, they know exactly how bad Olaf is, so it’d take an idiot to miss it; it’s much easier to deal with parents dying because of a secret society than it is an accidental fire and so on. Each and every character’s quirks can be explained as a child’s interpretation of adults around them. Of course, this is just the basis for the story and you’ll find no ‘it was all happening in their heads’ at the end of this, but this realization did give me an appreciation for the skill with which Handlers wrote the books.
The writers of this series show no less skill, throughout the series delivering a number of running jokes that never get stale in any of the eight-episode run: “we know what [word] means”, people using phrases in foreign languages wrong, and grammar jokes to name just a few. There is also excellent use of visual comedy, such as Mr Poe’s office being in front of a bank vault surrounded by safety deposit boxes, or Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack) constantly being dressed as a judge. The use of different forms of comedy in the specific way that the show blends them really helps this series stand out and claim a visual and comedic style all of its own. There is enough material in the books for about two more series of this show, I truly hope it gets its renewal and doesn’t fade out of memory like its silver screen predecessor.