'A Series of Unfortunate Events' Embraces the Darkness of the World

Netflix's adaptation of the grim book series delights in its own grimness, and invites viewers to do the same.

14 January 2017, 5:00am


The joy of A Series of Unfortunate Events is, in fact, its bleakness. The book series, written by Daniel Handler under the name "Lemony Snicket" and which debuted in 1999, stood out by not adhering to the happy-ever-after formula. We meet the children as they learn that their parents just died, then we follow them—for 13 increasingly grim books—as they bounce from guardian to guardian, trying to escape the clutches of villainous Count Olaf. The adults are terrible and useless; the children can only rely only on one another as they plunge further and further into an overarching mystery about their parents' secrets. Throughout, the narrator—Snicket, maintaining a wry, depressive, and darkly amusing tone—repeatedly tells readers to stop, put down the book, and seek out something happier. Of course, the more he does so, the more we want to keep reading.

It's fitting (and promising), then, that the theme song of Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events television adaptation begins by warning viewers to "look away"—because it quickly proves to be a series that you can't look away from. The eight-episode first season adapts the first four books, each split into two parts. It closely follows the Baudelaire children: 14-year-old inventor Violet (Malina Weissman), 12-year-old voracious reader Klaus (Louis Hynes), and baby Sunny (Presley Smith, voiced by Tara Strong), who's known for her powerful teeth and subtitled quips. Neil Patrick Harris takes on Count Olaf, fully embodying the character's evil, murderous nature while also being just campy enough to land the dark jokes and play up Olaf's many disguises. (And yes, there is a musical number.)

The cast also features always-welcome Joan Cusack and Catherine O'Hara, as well as series highlights Aasif Mandvi and Alfre Woodard, as Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine (two characters who were white in the books). Patrick Warburton is Snicket, the narrator who repeatedly breaks the fourth wall with warnings or waxing poetic about his own personal tragedies, exhibiting an eerie sense of calm when describing tragedies that elevates everything on screen instead of making it redundant.

Warburton's always been known for his deep, gravely voice that made even the cheesiest of punchlines (see: Rules of Engagement) funny, as long as they're delivered in a deadpan tone. It works so well here that it'll soon be impossible to read (or re-read) the books without hearing his voice in your head. Warburton's presence also manages to keep a lot of the books' fun and nerdy wordplay, sometimes functioning as a sly dictionary (Snicket pauses to explain what "dramatic irony" is before we see it firsthand; later, he explains what an "optimist" is—not to be confused with optometrist, though both, Snicket warns, can be dangerous.)

In an early press release, Handler joked, "Netflix has lured millions of people to their programming, causing them to stare mesmerized at bewitching storytelling for hours or even days on end. Who better to adapt A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is a cavalcade of abject misery — a binge, if you will, of sadness and woe?" His penchant for hyperbole is on the money here: A Series of Unfortunate Events is perfect for Netflix.

The books are easily split and digestible in smaller increments. The ongoing mystery spans the book series, particular the second-half, but each installment includes standalone horrors, sets, and characters. Of all the shows Netflix has released in recent weeks, it's A Series of Unfortunate Events (which is neither too-adult or too-childish to fit well on a major broadcast network) that makes the most of its streaming home, and that showcases the best of Netflix's ability and strategy.

By making each episode an hour long, the show has room to breathe without rushing through; by dividing each book into two parts, we're able to see the full story of each gloomy misadventure. It's built for both binge-watchers and patient viewers (I watched two a day, to slowly let the horrors creep in). Daniel Handler serves as the executive producer and penned a handful of the episodes (in contrast, the film was written by Robert Gordon), while Barry Sonnenfield—who earlier honed this fun/dark balance in Addams Family and Pushing Daisies—directs four episodes.

A Series of Unfortunate Events takes place in creepy locales—Olaf's dilapidated home, Aunt Josephine's precariously built house on a cliff overlooking hurricane central, the dangerous and nerve-racking Lucky Smells Lumbermill—that are brought to life by the set design. While the 2004 movie (which received mixed reviews, resulting in the cancellation of a planned franchise) seemed to sacrifice story for style, this new series successfully blends both together in a way that heightens the delightful grimness. (It also depicts a wonderful attention to detail: Reptile-obsessed Uncle Monty has a snakeskin print rug on his stairs.) There is a sense of perpetual doom and gloom, and an ongoing feeling of unease, as the camera pans through Olaf's disgusting kitchen or lingers on the woman-size hole in a glass window.

There is also no set time period for these events, which adds to the story's necessary confusing and imbalance. Transportation is deliberately old fashioned, typewriters are popular—but there are still mentions of contemporary musicians and, of course, Uber. An aversion to the norm fuels the series, down to the smaller moments; a male news anchor named Veronica casually throws to his co-anchor, a woman named Vincent.

But the dark writing is still the star of the show here, bringing the characters to life in all of their misery. Aunt Josephine is so plagued by a trauma that she goes from being "fierce and formidable" to a woman who is scared of everything from the stove to real estate agents, but the show doesn't have to spell out PTSD for us to understand. Count Olaf's villainy is mostly comical, but sometimes downright disturbing (spoiler: an early plot involves him trying to marry a 14-year-old) in a way that's hard to shake.

Still, the most haunting aspect is the desperation of the Baudelaire siblings. Every episode, they try to get an adult—any adult—to see what they see, to understand the evilness they are surrounded by, to point out that the villain is quite literally standing in front of them—but in a wig!—yet they are constantly told that they are wrong, that it's just their grief or paranoia talking, until it's too late to be fixed. The adults will never quite learn, but the series at least wants viewers to take note of the lessons.

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