A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS Review
You may not remember, but A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS was one of the first victims of the Great Hollywood Re-Hashing of the Millennial Childhood. In 2004, an UNFORTUNATE EVENTS film was released starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf and covered the first three books in the series. The film was an admirable effort — it even made money, won an Oscar for makeup, and earned a nomination for its bangin’ score — but it wound up as a forgettable, formulaic children’s movie that entirely missed the essence of the UNFORTUNATE EVENTS novels. That is, telling a children’s story that doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending; a means of introducing children to tragic events and depressing emotions through absurdist humor.
So maybe it just looks good next to the movie, maybe it released at a time when dark humor, clever mysteries, and whimsical nostalgia are in high demand, maybe I’m just a fanboy, but goddamn does Netflix’s UNFORTUNATE EVENTS sing. Not only does the series remain devoutly faithful to the tone and meaning of the books, but a bevy of timely references and catchy musical numbers provide more than enough for UNFORTUNATE EVENTS neophytes to love. I gave up hope of a proper adaptation after the sequel to the 2004 film was cancelled, but the necromancers of the Netflix Lazarus pit have worked their magic once again. A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS may not be a great movie, or a great video game, but damn if it isn’t a great TV series.
Oh yeah, and also a great book series
One seemingly Sisyphean task that UNFORTUNATE EVENTS conquers concerns treading the line between adult entertainment and children’s programming. For a series that pulls no punches when it comes to violence, deceit and the other various evils of man, they never once use profanity. Not a single drop of blood is spilt, and all individuals remain fully clothed for the entirety of the season’s runtime. Lemony Snicket himself condescendingly defines all but the simplest words. Of course, just because a show satisfies the requirements of various censorship agencies doesn’t automatically mean the show is for children, but I’d still say that kids as young as ten could understand UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. For all of their wit and whimsy, the characters lack moral nuance; the line between good and evil is painted with bright neon colors. The Baudelaires constantly endear and dazzle us, using astounding ingenuity and intellect to repeatedly escape the nefarious clutches of Count Olaf and his troupe of deplorables. Adults not associated with Olaf are all as pure-hearted as the orphans, though most are too crippled by their own inadequacy (or at the very least, an inability to recognize Count Olaf in disguise) to be of any help.
The Baudelaire parents stand in stark contrast to this rule, just as their early introduction to the story stands in stark contrast to the books. The frustrating, captivating mystery at the core of UNFORTUNATE EVENTS does admittedly lose some punch in the transition from book to screen. The show’s treatment of the Baudelaire parents presumes a great deal of audience knowledge, yet the events surrounding the former have changed dramatically from the source material. While the inclusion of a Beatrice/Bertrand subplot brought me immense joy as a fan, the uninitiated might feel that these scenes are fanciful, an unnecessary distraction that exist only to provide the deus ex machina solution near the end of the sixth episode. Hopefully the elder Baudelaires add more to the show in later seasons than fan service and light wackiness.
Patrick Warburton would probably have been my last pick for the uncompromisingly stoic yet adventurously mysterious narrator Lemony Snicket, but he knocks it out of the park. His inimitable voice — mostly associated with brutish yet kind-hearted simpletons like Joe Swanson (FAMILY GUY) and Kronk (THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE) — slips seamlessly into the hopeless, overly verbose language of Mr. Snicket. Snicket floats just above the world of the Baudelaires; he primarily sticks to narrating the lives of the Baudelaires and begging the audience to watch something more pleasant. But he also exists within the story, not only in that Warburton’s visage appears on-screen, but as the fully-developed character that he eventually becomes in the books. He currently exudes just wisps of influence over the orphan’s lives, yet Warburton’s performance is so accurate, so electric, so full of melancholic wit that Snicket is already more of a force than his character ever was. Translating such a character to the screen presents numerous challenges, but UNFORTUNATE EVENTS and Warburton tackle them with aplomb.
Pictured: the entirety of Lemony Snicket’s screentime in the 2004 film
NPH’s performance as Count Olaf didn’t blow me away like I thought it would. Which is weird, because he delivers exactly what I wanted from the character. Harris has the comedic timing for the flimsy lies and malapropisms, the musical theatre experience for the song and dance sequences, and the menacing, amoral presence for the heinous crimes and cartoonish acts of violence. He absolutely nails Olaf’s various disguises; his Sean Connery-esque Captain Sham stands out as particularly hysterical. Even his unibrow looks better than Jim Carrey’s did! Despite all that, Harris doesn’t command the screen with Olaf the way Warburton does with Snicket. It seems like the comedic punch of every scene with Olaf comes not from the villainous actor but from Poe, or Sunny, or one of his various henchpeople. Of course it’s not Harris’s fault that his castmates are so talented, but they slightly eclipse his performance nonetheless.
UNFORTUNATE EVENTS genuinely warms my heart. It arrived precisely when it needed to, and became the series I’ve always dreamed it could be. The next season will face even more complex adaptation challenges, and won’t have a subpar movie to be compared to. But this season gives me faith that Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld know what they’re doing with the Baudelaires.