TL; DR(eview) - A Series of Unfortunate Events fares far better as a Netflix series than the 2004 film did. It gives each story much more time to breath (each of the first four books is given about two hours apiece here, compared to the film’s decision to squeeze three books down into less than two hours total). It’s still a bit too Olaf-heavy for my taste but Neil Patrick Harris exudes charm in the role and the balance between Olaf, the Baudelaire children, and an excellent turn from Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket does a much better job spreading the wealth around.
The new Netflix show A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the books of the same name, details the tragic lives of the Baudelaire children: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, and their endless ability to work together and support one another when everything else falls apart around them. Easily existing in the realm of the fantastical, the series was one of the first to make the jump to the big screen in the wake of Harry Potter’s monumental success. The movie, which was designed as a star vehicle for Jim Carrey as the series’ antagonist Count Olaf in his unending quest to claim the Baudelaire fortune, wound up a commercial dud and the franchise was cut short. Only the series’ first three books (out of thirteen) were adapted to film and the decision to squeeze those three into a single film rather than give each story its own room to breathe was, in my opinion, a misfire.
But, having read a handful of the books at the time, the real victim of the condensed plot was probably the children themselves; the stars of the series who wound up with a bare minimum to do on screen in favor of Carrey making funny faces and wearing crazy costumes. My biggest fear since this Netflix version was announced with Neil Patrick Harris as the headliner was that it would follow the same path, putting too much emphasis on the wacky antics of Count Olaf and the star playing him and giving the children short shrift. So were my fears founded?
Harris is given free reign to chew all the scenery possible as bumbling actor-slash-archvillain Count Olaf. And while I’m sure my own personal taste is coming through, I found him much more charming in the role than I did Carrey before him. Harris seems a more generous scene partner, playing off his troupe of misfit performers, the other notable adults in the Baudelaire lives, and most importantly, the children themselves with great aplomb. He is also enjoyable singing the variations of the show’s opening credits music to appropriately set up each episode.
Despite my concerns on the potential overuse of Olaf, the series manages this much better than the movie because the story has much more breathing room. Yes, Olaf and his antics get a lot of time. But because each book is effectively told across two hour-long episodes (compared to the film that didn’t even get that runtime for three books), there’s more time for everything else too.
Ample time is spent with the Baudelaire children. We get to see the eldest Violet (Malina Weissman) as the de facto leader and inventor extraordinaire. Klaus (Louis Hynes) and his book smarts are on fine display as well. Sunny (Presley Smith, voiced by Tara Strong), as a character, is given plenty of cute cutaway gags with her gurgles translated via subtitles. The frequent overuse of CGI to support her character can come across jarring at times, though.
We also get much more time with each of the new caretakers in the ever-revolving door of the Baudelaire children’s lives. Some will probably view this as a double-edged sword though as one of the defining characteristics of pretty much every adult in the series is their stubborn refusal to heed the children’s warnings and see Olaf for what he really is. So, especially if you binge through the show in a weekend like I did, you can easily find frustration in the repetition of something like Mr. Poe’s (K. Todd Freeman) obliviousness to the reality of the situation or his constantly dismissive “I’m the adult so I know better than you” tone toward the children. But for me, it felt very much in line with the books and the idea that we should be rooting for the Baudelaires because they are the cleverest characters in this world. They continually show it through their actions, while all of the adults have to try and tell everyone why they are so clever.
The most notable exception being Patrick Warburton’s Lemony Snicket narrator. Detailing the events to the audience, long after they’ve occurred, Snicket has painstakingly studied the case of the Baudelaire children and knows full well of their intellect compared to that of the adults surrounding them. The increased presence of Snicket as a character weaving in and out of scenes to keep the narrative flowing along is probably the single best aspect of the show compared to the movie. Daniel Handler, the real name of one Lemony Snicket, serves as a main writer on the series so the dry, stoic tone he and Warburton infuse the character with are spot on. Handler also lifts a handful of exchanges directly from the source material, making it feel all the more authentic.
The design of the show is another of its standout elements. Aside from the occasional noticeable computer animated issues (like Sunny, mentioned above), the look of this show is charmingly fantastical, shown through a somewhat dreary lens to match the tone of the Baudelaire tale. Locales like Olaf’s home or the Miserable Mill are appropriately grey and dismal. Aunt Josephine’s slanted home on a cliffside or Uncle Montgomery Montgomery’s Reptile Room are at the same time recognizable and just over-the-top enough to showcase the eccentricities of their inhabitants.
Overall, I think Netflix is an incredible fit for A Series of Unfortunate Events, treating this first season more as four two-part movies than individual hour-long episodes. In fact, that idea may actually make it the smarter decision to stretch out the viewing book by book rather than rushing through them all in a couple sittings. There are minor callbacks littered throughout though, with the creative team recognizing that you probably will sit through the whole series in rapid succession. So a throwaway line in episode two might come back as a reference in episode six for a quick self-referential chuckle (there are also ample moments where characters break the fourth wall and refer to the very idea of a streaming service as a way of consuming the media). It was over too soon but I look forward to seeing the how they tackle the next set of books in the inevitable second season.