An Unfortunately Brilliant Series

An Unfortunately Brilliant Series
Courtesy Photo Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is now streaming on Netflix.

Courtesy Photo
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is now streaming on Netflix.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the books by Daniel Handler (pen name: Lemony Snicket) is an exercise in fantastically morose whimsy. Announced last year by Netflix, the series does in so many ways what the attempt at a movie in 2004 was unable to do. Longform television is an ideal medium for adapting novels, and A Series of Unfortunate Events proves that beyond any shadow of doubt.

At eight episodes, A Series of Unfortunate Events gives two each to the first four of Handlers series of (fittingly) 13 books. This makes for a very watchable format while also giving the adaptations themselves enough time to breathe and pace everything correctly. At right around two hours for each book, this effectively makes each novel into its very own movie, allowing more than enough time to thoroughly adapt the 300-odd-page novels in completion.

What follows is an extremely (un)pleasant and wondrously Gothic journey into the tragically ill-fated lives of the Baudelaire children: Violet, Klaus, and baby Sunny. After their parents tragically perish in a fire (perish means die), the Baudelaires are put into the care of their closest living relative (taken in the first episode to mean “nearest in proximity”); the dastardly, devious, diabolical Count Olaf (a brilliantly hammy, scenery-munching Neil Patrick Harris). Imparting this tale of woe to us is Lemony Snicket himself, as played by Patrick Warburton, weaving himself in and out of scenes and shattering the fourth wall repeatedly. Warburton’s dulcet tones are a perfect accompaniment to the dark tale unfolding before us.

Child actors are a hard thing. For every brilliant and capable-beyond-their-years one, there are twenty that are just kids and just want to be kids. The actors hired to play Violet and Klaus (Malina Weissman, who played young Kara Zor-El in season one of Supergirl, and Louis Hynes, who is effectively making his major debut here) are both great, handling what could easily be clunky, stilted dialogue even in the hands of seasoned actors.

The baby is a bit of a different story, as it’s clear they’ve used CGI on the child’s face and the Uncanny Valley is crossed many times. Sunny is a fantastical character, her babbles and gurgles translated via both subtitles and Violet and Klaus, who always understand their baby sister no matter what. She also has the teeth of a cartoon beaver, smoothing down rocks and munching through trees, or chopping parsley and slicing baguettes. Couple all of the over-the-top cartoonishness with the production schedule assumed for the 13 books (three seasons and three years) and it makes sense that they would do whatever they could to maintain the illusion that Sunny isn’t growing like a normal baby would grow. The timeline is subject to some great jokes in the series itself, so I don’t actually have a clue how long any of this takes, nor how long the series itself takes to play out.

The lives of the Baudelaire orphans are not for the faint of heart. Constantly accompanying the tale unfolding on the screen are dire warnings from Lemony Snicket that if there is something, anything else we could be watching, we should. Imploring us not to continue, how the tale he’s telling keeps him up at night even now, that the sadness and bleakness of the Baudelaire’s world is not entertainment. But, like a slow-motion train wreck, it’s impossible to look away, even if Count Olaf tells us to in the show’s constantly changing theme song.

The Baudelaire’s world invokes one of producer Barry Sonnenfeld’s more famous worlds, that of Gomez and Morticia Addams and The Addams Family movies of the early ‘90s. A Gothic sensibility prevails in both the décor and the attitude of most of the characters, but it’s far enough removed from the likes of Tim Burton that it always feels unique and never derivative.

While Snicket and Olaf may implore you to look away, I have to say the opposite. Definitely check out Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which fittingly began streaming on Friday the 13th, and is now available in its entirety on Netflix.

Categories: Commentary