A Series of Unfortunate Events: Netflix’s take on Lemony Snicket’s classic is a fun visual treat

Sneha Khale

Jan,28 2017 09:43:56 IST

“Look away, look away, look away” — as Neil Patrick Harris’ creepily nasal voice drones on through the opening credits, each episode’s theme bringing us up-to-date with the Baudelaire kids and their continuing misfortunes, they perfectly echo Lemony Snicket’s persistent warnings to readers of the original book series — “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”

This is, after all, the Baudelaires’ story; a children’s story unlike any other —  there are no happy family reunions here, no pleasant outcomes, no warm beds and no caring adults. These are, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Netflix’s brand new take on the Lemony Snicket classic book series of the same name. If you grew up crushing on Neil Patrick Harris (NPH) as Doogie Howser and then fell for his oversexed charm as Barney Stinson, beware, because as Count Olaf, he’s the unequivocally monstrous antihero of our series. Netflix even sent out a warning to Harris’ fans, that’s how bad Olaf is!

Well, looks like you’re brave and rebellious, and hence not the sort to “look away” from unfortunate misfortunes. In which case, you’ll love A Series of Unfortunate Events!

What’s it about?

The unhappy beginning is simple enough: Violet Baudelaire (wide eyes, soft voice, earnest; she’s beautifully played by Malina Weissman) is spending the day at the beach with her younger brother Klaus (Louis Hynes is the perfect Klaus — a quick thinker and voracious reader) and their baby sister Sunny (played by the expressive baby Presley Smith, some CGI notwithstanding) when Mr Poe (played by Todd Freeman), their parents’ banker, arrives to inform them of their parents’ death in a fire that has also destroyed their home. Orphaned and heartbroken, they’re sent to live with their closest living relative (where “closest living” means the relative who lives closest to them, i.e. nearest) — in this case, Count Olaf (played, well, well enough by NPH), an untalented theater actor with a eye on the large fortune left to the Baudelaire kids by their parents, which they stand to inherit when Violet turns 18 (which is a few years down the line).

Young, innocent, and without the benefit of an intelligent adult by their side, the Baudelaire kids become the presumably easy targets of Count Olaf and his equally untalented theater troupe. “Presumably” because, unbeknown to Count Olaf, the kids are extraordinarily resourceful — Violet is an inventor, Klaus is an avid reader and researcher, and little Sunny is the comic relief a biter! What transpires, as fans of the book series and the 2004 movie starring Jim Carrey will know, are a series of unfortunate events (most of which are brought upon them by Olaf and his minions) that the kids have to endure, pluck their way through, and overcome. Lemony Snicket wasn’t lying when he told us it would be unpleasant!

The quirky narrative, and narrator

Daniel Handler, who used the pseudonym Lemony Snicket to write this series of books, is an exceptionally gifted author with an uncanny knack for whimsical wordplay. As Lemony Snicket and a narrator of the unfortunate events befalling the Baudelaire kids, he writes stuff like, “The book was long, and difficult to read, and Klaus became more and more tired as the night wore on. Occasionally his eyes would close. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over.” Admittedly, it’s the kind of prose that’s difficult to bring to screen. Enter Patrick Warburton! For me, Warburton was always David Puddy — Elaine’s face painting, fur coat wearing religious boyfriend on Seinfeld, who believes she’s going to hell for her atheism. His deadpan delivery was a signature on the show, and as the narrator Lemony Snicket, he continues to imbibe his delivery and timing with said signature deadpan thereby doing full justice to Handler’s words and humour. Just watch Netflix’s teaser trailer with Lemony Snicket, you’ll know what I mean.

Faithfulness to the books

This is what’s best about the show — more than the actual storyline (which doesn’t really get explored much, since the first season only covers the first four books in the series, and there are 13 books in all), it’s the faithfulness with which the original source material is dealt with, that’s remarkable. Deadpan delivery aside, the humour, the dark comedy and the even darker behaviour of grownups, vocabulary explanations (literally vs figuratively, rational vs irrational fear, and that “in loco parentis” doesn’t mean you have crazy parents!), the love of reading, despairing children having to fend for themselves because the adults either ignore or oppress them or both, and how they continue to persevere using logic, truth, and reason — it’s all classic Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler. What could have been a slightly clumsy depiction of Snicket’s prose and story is, in fact, an almost pitch-perfect and faithful exploration of the books.

The kids are great too: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, as well as the actors who portray them. The plot and tone of the series can be a bit overwhelmingly depressing and upsetting (even while it’s funny and immersive), but the children are resilient — happy to have each other, always looking at the bright side, and viewing each misfortune with caution and reason. Whether they’re trying to find clues about how Count Olaf (disguised as Stephano) killed their herpetologist uncle Monty Montgomery, whether they’re trying to decipher their grammar-obsessed Aunt Josephine’s grammatically incorrect “suicide note”, or when they attempt to escape from a leech frenzy on Lake Lachrymose — you’re just waiting for the moment Violet ties her hair up, because you know she’s inventing a foolproof plan that Klaus can read more about and only Sunny can bite her way through. Vocabulary lessons, a kickass heroine, and a strong message for kids to not give up hope — it’s what we all need in 2017! Sure, they lose a little bit of their innocence in the process, but the precocious nature of all three kids makes it easier to enjoy the series’ commentary on adulthood - which is humorously scathing and true.

Comparisons with 2004 movie

When the same source material is remade on television just over a decade after it was made into a movie (2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), comparisons are bound to be made. Filmmaker Matt Skuta has already created a side-by-side comparison of the film and the TV show that highlights some of the similarities and differences in the visual tone and shot treatment in the two adaptations.

But let’s compare a few other things between the two, shall we? Why, you ask? Because, to quote Count Olaf, “it’s fun”. Daniel Handler, who was involved in the screenwriting process for the film was ultimately removed from that project. In contrast, he executive produced the Netflix show. He also wrote the teleplay, title theme, and the original songs for A Series of Unfortunate Events. Now, you do the math about which one’s better!

Nah, I’m kidding. It’s not like the 2004 movie was bad; in fact, it was pretty good, especially considering it starred that highly overrated actress Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine. The set pieces and visual tone of the movie were apt too, in keeping with what you’d imagine Handler’s aesthetic was when he wrote the books (although, let’s face it, the “Wes Anderson meets Tim Burton and they have a darkly funny children’s show lovechild” vibe of the Netflix show is far more visceral). Ultimately, it comes down to this — TV was just the better medium to bring A Series of Unfortunate Events to screen. And there are many reasons why. Besides the better casting, the incredible opening sequence, Daniel Handler’s involvement in the making of the show, and the visual appeal, TV as a medium allows the story to go be told in all its quirky depth and eccentric complexity. Eight hours of TV for the first four books as opposed to two hours of movie for the first three — it may sound unfair. And it is. But that’s why Netflix is our saviour, lest we forget. It’s like Paste’s Amy Glynn writes in the article linked-to above, “it was probably crazypants to think the story arc or even the spirit of a 13-book series could be captured in a conventional film — it’s like trying to put my 6’8” ex-father-in-law in economy class on a 737. You can shove and fold and scrunch, but no one’s going to be comfortable.” With Netflix, it’s like everyone flies first class!

There are two other reasons why the Netflix show is better: inclusion and diversity. Three main characters who were played by white actors in the film are portrayed by actors of colour on the show — stage actor Todd Freeman plays Mr Poe, Indian-American actor Aasif Mandvi plays uncle Monty Montgomery, and the always awesome Alfre Woodard plays Aunt Josephine. Each one of them comes off perfectly cast, and makes the role their own.

Still from Netflix's 'A Series Of Unfortunate Events'

Still from Netflix's 'A Series Of Unfortunate Events'

The inclusion of a homosexual couple on what is essentially a kids TV show, is huge! Sir and Charles, the owner and partner of Lucky Smells Lumber Mill in book four The Miserable Mill, were almost certainly gay, but the way it was non fussily-yet-considerately spelled out on the show, was beyond refreshing. In episode 7, The Miserable Mill: Part I, this is how we finally know that Sir (played by Don Johnson) and Charles are, in fact, a couple —

Sir: Call me Sir. Everybody does because I tell them to. I’m the boss. They have to do what I say, even my partner here.

Klaus Baudelaire: Doesn’t “partner” mean “equal”?

Cut to Lemony Snicket: Well, in fact, “partners” can mean several things. It could mean “two people who own a lumber mill together, or a cupcakery.” Now, with the advent of more progressive cultural mores, not to mention certain High Court rulings, it could also mean...

Cut back to Sir and Charles...

Sir: I do all the work. He irons my clothes.

Charles: I also cook your omelets.

Cut to Lemony Snicket: The definitions are not mutually exclusive.  

Jim Carrey v/s NPH — who’s a better Count Olaf?

When an actor like NPH takes on a role like Count Olaf, one that Jim Carrey brought to life in the 2004 movie, you’d think that Harris would do a better job hands down. Not because Jim Carrey didn’t do a good job, but come on — it’s NPH we’re talking about here. The guy acts, sings, dances, does magic tricks, and owns Instagram with pictures of his adorable family! According to EW’s Marc Snetiker, Daniel Handler first considered Harris for the role of Count Olaf after seeing him perform “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore” at the 65th Tony Awards in 2011, saying, “I just immediately saw someone who could pull off a million things at once” — something that was a prerequisite for the character of Count Olaf.

Unfortunately though (and I say this with a heavy heart because I’m a huge NPH fan), he just about does a good job. It’s not that he’s bad, far from it. But there’s a certain menacing quality to Handler’s book version of Count Olaf which is missing in Harris’ portrayal. It’s a character that would be difficult to pull off for almost any actor, and if NPH fell short, it’s probably because it requires an actor with acting chops equivalent to Handler’s crazy-good writing skills. And, at least in season 1, NPH ain’t him! But there’s still season 2 and 3, and I could already feel him getting into Olaf’s battered shoes with more ease towards the end of the season — tattooed ankle and everything!

Final thoughts 

OMG, questions, questions, questions! Netflix has done it once again for all of us TV nerds — how we’re supposed to get off our asses and get any work done when it keeps dropping great TV show after great miniseries after great TV show, I have no idea!

As for A Series of Unfortunate Events, cannot wait for season 2! The first season did a terrific job of setting it all up — we’re all rooting for the kids and hating Count Olaf, sure. But there are all these other things going on, and the questions I have keep increasing every time I think about the show.

1. “The parents” (played by Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett) are not the Baudelaire parents (like some of us may have hoped); they’re the Quagmire parents, whose kids seem to experience the same fate as the Baudelaires.

2. Will the two sets of kids come together to take down Olaf and the others?

3. Why is Olaf so mean to the kids? Besides the fact that “it’s fun”.

4. How are all the villains tied to this story?

5. What does Olaf’s tattoo mean? Does it say VFD? What’s VFD? There are spoilers online, but I want to watch it the way Daniel Handler and Netflix want to show it to me.

6. What’s the importance of the spyglass?

You see what I mean? This was the perfect season 1 for a really good show, that did great justice to the splendid book series it’s based on. Despite what they keeping telling us, season 2 can’t get here sooner!

Rating - A

Genre - Whimsical modern-day fairytale with gothic overtones

Who is it for? Everyone. Adults, children, babies, pets. It’s diverse and inclusive — it even has something for vintage automobile fans!

Best episode — A tie between episode 6 (The Wide Window: Part II) and episode 8 (The Miserable Mill: Part II).

Best quote — Everything Lemony (Patrick Warburton the narrator, not the deliciously tangy frosting) says, but if I absolutely have to pick: “Everyone is allergic to something, whether it is gluten, injustice, dark chocolate, corruption, pollen, or common decency. Of course, if you are allergic to a thing it is best not to put that thing in your mouth. Particularly if the thing is cats.”

Best character — Sunny Baudelaire. Why? See this and this.

Best Sunny Baudelaire moment — Her face when Aunt Josephine serves the kids chilled cucumber soup (she’s afraid to turn on the stove because it might burst into flames). Emmy gold!

 

Best guest appearance — Toss up between Alfre Woodard’s cowardly Aunt Josephine and Catherine O’Hara’s Dr Georgina Orwell (incidentally, O’Hara played Justice Strauss in the 2004 movie).

Important life lessons learned —

What marriage is really like: Marriage is like sharing a root beer float or agreeing to be the back half of a horse costume, even when it's happening on stage. You should only do it with the people you love.

About being a good person — Trouble and strife can cover this world like the dark of night, or like smoke from a suspicious fire. And when that happens, all good, true, and decent people know that it's time to volunteer.

Knowing the importance of dramatic irony —

Updated Date: Jan 28, 2017 09:43 AM