The first episode of Netflix’s new series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, which released its first season today, appropriately on Friday the 13th, is a crime against the very art of cinema. Why such a reputable company would inflict such woe on its subscribers as the depressing tale of the Baudelaire orphans is beyond me. Despite brilliant characterization, a near-perfect adaptation with just enough departures from its source, charmingly anachronistic production design willing to use a very bold range of color palettes to set instantaneous moods, and charming writing eliciting sympathy and disgust for all the right characters from the get-go, no one should watch this show unless they wish to inflict such misery upon themselves that they will be tempted to cancel their Netflix account and burn their television like a villainous member of a divided secret organization burns a most flammable mansion.
Of course, any fan of Lemony Snicket’s thirteen books, also called A Series of Unfortunate Events, will recognize this admonition against the show as my own attempt at capturing the almost self-deprecating grim wit that marks these unique novels. While this hallmark of the saga of the hapless Baudelaire children was present to an extent in the 2004 Brad Silberling film adaptation of the first three novels, which contained a few scenes of Jude Law as Lemony Snicket writing the novels, it is far more prevalent and interwoven in this series, with Patrick Warburton (in my opinion, a better casting choice for the dour Snicket) appearing in scenes as Snicket, portraying the author and researcher of the Baudelaires as a cross between an invisible war correspondent and a chronically depressed Rod Serling to great effect and preserving a lot of his infamous style of narration, a word which here means, “all of the little asides and humorous definitions that mark Snicket’s curious, whimsically dark prose as his own, serving not only to move action forward but to foreshadow and hint at characters’ intentions.” It even begins with a dedication to the mysterious, oft-referenced Beatrice to whom all of the books were dedicated.
While the trailers left me somewhat ambivalent towards Neil Patrick Harris’s Count Olaf, the central antagonist of the story, a distant relative of the three children and master of disguise attempting to steal the fortune bequeathed to them by their recently-deceased parents, I quickly warmed up to him. While Jim Carrey’s 2004 portrayal was admittedly closer to the flamboyant, obnoxious Olaf I pictured upon reading the novels, Harris’s is more believable as both a failed, narcissistic actor and a real threat to the children. His talents are showcased in a ludicrously over-the-top musical number, and I look forward to seeing him in later episodes as Olaf becomes, in his own mind, at least, and inexplicably that of every otherwise responsible adult, a master of disguise.
The rest of the cast is well-suited to their roles. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes shine as Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, the genius tween orphans. There are one or two lines from Weissman that feel a bit forced, and Hynes’ British accent creeps through his dialogue coaching on occasion, but it doesn’t detract from the performance. K. Todd Freeman’s Mr. Poe is delightfully awkward and ignorant, while his wife Eleanora (Cleo King), in an expanded role from the novels, is chillingly apathetic to a humorous extent. The theater troupe is a brilliant ensemble of freaks and villains, given far greater spotlight in just this first episode than in the film.
The true brilliance, however, lies in the art department. As noted above, bold choices are made. The Baudelaires, eternally optimistic in the face of soul-crushing opposition, dress in fairly bright colors. Justice Strauss, the friendly, if oblivious, neighbor, inhabits a world of bright color, underscoring her upbeat, childlike manner. Olaf’s house, of course, is drab and dilapidated, entirely brown and gray. Other locations, such as the foreboding Briny Beach and the unremarkable Poe house, inhabit a spectrum between these extremes. The delightful anachronism of the dialogue (Snicket says he is researching tragedies from many years ago, but the characters repeatedly quote, of all people, James Brown) extends to the production design as well, with antique vehicles like an old-time firetruck and a rickety trolley existing alongside advanced mechanical inventions of Violet’s, all in a gothic-meets-steampunk aesthetic perfectly suited to this macabre world.
There are plot elements and a key location introduced here that do not appear until several books later in the novel series, but it works for the medium and it gives me hope that this story will continue on through all of the novels instead of being cut short as the proposed film series was. One major departure from the novels exists at the end of this first episode, but I am assured by a friend that all will be clear by the end of the season.
So in conclusion, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a masterpiece, Netflix’s best yet, It is absolutely captivating and, of course, must not be watched by anyone ever, for the traumatizing tale of the Baudelaire orphans is terribly addictive. Once I finish sobbing uncontrollably, I can’t wait to watch the rest of this season. I’ve been sucked back in to the world of Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t be more pleas– err, morose.
Almost broke character for a second there. It’s that good.