Review: A (First) Series of Unfortunate Events
You know, in some ways, I’m quite disappointing. Because the fact the Netflix’s new Series of Unfortunate Events adaptation is nigh-on perfect, I don’t get to write a gloomy review a la Lemony Snicket’s classic series.
But that would be my only complaint- quite miraculous, really, since Series of Unfortunate Events is one of those precious books (well, collection of books) that permeated my youth in a way nothing except Adrian Mole and Artemis Fowl would match. I’ve seen Lemony Snicket’s verbose and hilarious tale of woe described as the great American novel of our generation, and I don’t think I would argue with that; the way the writing picks at literary and genre cliches while still managing to come up with a genuinely compelling story packed with mystery and suspense is so effortlessly original and unique that I wondered if they could make it into a successful screen adaptation at all. I mean, we all saw the film, didn’t we? Ugh.
But this, an eight-episode run that spans the first four books of the series, is about as close to flawless as I could ask for. The hardest thing to get right, I think, was the feel of the world; the books created this timeless universe that could have been set last week or a hundred years ago, in the vein of stuff like Brazil. The first couple of episodes, written by Daniel Handler, the man behind Lemony Snicket, create this gloriously twisted take on classic gothic Americana in both the look of the show and the execution. It’s the kind of world you want to spend hours exploring, from the ashy husk of the destroyed Bauderlaire mansion to the twee picket fenced abode of Justice Strauss.
Another problem to overcome? The casting. While the movie is, as we can all agree, basically an affront to the books, Jim Carrey was beyond perfect as the villainous Olaf, and I really wondered if anyone they cast could do him justice. Turns out, they could, but only with Neil Patrick Harris in the role. Harris, a broadway veteran, brings a sweeping theatricality to the role, revelling in the naturally hammy role and turning into what will surely be one of the comedy performances of the year. In a phrase I thought I’d never say, Patrick Waburton is perfectly cast as Snicket himself, who still holds the position of the dry, omnipresent narrator, while the kids- especially Klaus- are better than any child actors have the right to be. Each story-the season has four, covering the first quartet of books- has it’s own excellent supporting cast, most notably Alfre Woodard as Aunt Josephine.
Yes, this is just a first season, and the show does deviate notably from the books in a few ways that’ll become clear to any die-hard fans like me. But it’s the right balance of engaging for old and new fans alike. For people like me, there are nods and Easter eggs to the later stories all over the place, but just enough new stuff to keep me from feeling too smug. For people whose first introduction to the series will be this TV show, they commit to retelling these gloriously creative and engaging stories with a wit and love for the original material that will have you ordering the whole series on Amazon by the time the first episode is done.
This really bloody good television- there’s not much more to say about it than that. Hilarious, creative, and unique, it’s a nostalgia hit and an exciting new show to look forward to all in one. Whether you’ve read the books or not, lose yourself in the gorgeously gothic tale of the Baudelaire orphans, and thank the Lord for Neil Patrick Harris.