A Series of Unfortunate Events is a new black comedy drama series, developed for Netflix, based on the series of children’s novels by Lemony Snicket (real name Daniel Handler). The series follows the misadventures of the Baudelaire orphans Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny (Presley Smith), who are forced to move to different homes following the death of their parents. They are relentlessly pursued by the villainous Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), who is determined to secure their wealthy inheritance for himself. The first season adapts the first four books in the thirteen-book series, dedicating two episodes to each book for a total of eight episodes.
I had an odd relationship with this book series growing up. The Reptile Room, the second book, getting read to my class by our grade-five teacher had a formative influence on me. The dark humour, sarcastic tone, and absurdity of the story and world left a great impression upon me, influencing my sense of humour and interests going forward. This got me to read the two books that followed, but no further. I never did read the first one either. This was an odd state of mind to come into the Netflix series with, having strong feelings about one book but knowing little about the series as a whole.
I really liked the way they chose to structure the show, two episodes to a book, giving them an entire episode to establish a new setting and typically ending with the viewer in suspense, saving climax and conclusion for the following episode in the couplet. I feel like there’s still a lot less to each story than what was in the books, but there’s enough to them that I didn’t find them lacking plot-wise. I found the plight of the children, when they’re the focus, to be consistently enjoyable to watch (despite the gloom, grief, and fear). Violet and Klaus are performed really well and I was genuinely anxious for them as adults routinely fail to heed their good sense and constantly let them down.
As in the books, the series is narrated by Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton), who has taken it upon himself as a character to convey the story to us — though he takes every opportunity to discourage the viewer from actually watching. He often serves as a transition forward in the narrative, breaking scenes up, and just as in the books frequently cuts in to define a word or a phrase in a humorously frank yet tangential way. This is often in a way that gets repeated once or twice more by one of the characters, which I liked as a way of cementing the meaning. This series, though dark and dealing with some complex issues, is intended for younger audiences — it is based on a series of children’s books, after all — so although I did find these interruptions a little disruptive at times, I understand that they’re not necessarily for me. It’s a stylistic decision I ultimately liked a lot despite my criticism.
Count Olaf is the one character I have a lot of ambivalent feelings about. On the one hand, I think Neil Patrick Harris plays the bad vaudevillian villain part quite well. He’s legitimately threatening and abusive, while at the same time managing to be buffoonish and incompetent, which can be difficult to balance. Despite these positives, Harris is a rather youthful person. I know he’s in his forties, but he looks and sounds much younger, which distracted from the more aged appearance of Olaf. Just as the Baudelaire see through each of his disguises, I often couldn’t help but see that it’s Neil Patrick Harris underneath a costume when watching him on screen.
Another issue I had was how much repetition there was throughout, be they of gags or just summarizing information. More than a few times I found a joke ran on too long, turning from silly to annoying. The overuse of summary I found especially odd, as the second episode begins with a detailed recap of everything in the first. While this would not be that strange for a weekly series, this show is quite deliberately made for a streaming service, to the point where there are a few on-the-nose jokes about online streaming where characters might as well have looked into the camera and winked. It is therefore strange that they seem to think we need that much recap, considering it’s likely the viewer just finished the previous episode.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about this first season, but by the end it had won me over. I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers, but late in the season there is a moment where they double down on their commitment to be an emotional kick in the teeth, directed at the audience, that got a strong reaction from me. I also appreciate it as a series that deals with more harsh and depressing realities of the world with a younger intended audience. The happy moments are bittersweet at best, and they’re really not lying when they say things are not going to turn out nicely. There’s value in understanding suffering and persevering through it, showcasing some of the complicated feelings that come with that.
Despite hiccups, A Series of Unfortunate Events season one is a quality show with a beautifully bleak visual style and fairly consistent black humour. The series also drops a lot of hints at a greater narrative through-line, something I never picked up on before, that’s got me interested in what mysteries the Baudelaire’s uncover about their parents. I recommend giving it a go, especially considering its concise length. With the positive note (in terms of critique) that the season ended with, I’m hopeful that season two will be even better.