Editor’s Note: this review contains minor plot spoilers for the series!
I can’t have been the only one who (in 2004) wished that the movie version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events—based on the series of books about a trio of young orphans pursued by a ruthless relative—had been directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (of Addams Family and Men in Black film franchise fame), rather than merely executive produced. Sonnenfeld, whose sense of visual style resembles Edward Gorey and early Tim Burton in the best way, comes off as a big kid with a slightly twisted sense of humor, both onscreen and in person. In fact, he had been the original choice to direct, but left over rising budget concerns. Brad Silberling would ultimately take over, but his style is far too sincere when it comes to issues of grief and bereavement (if you read his bio you’ll understand why), as his work on Casper, City of Angels, and Moonlight Mile attests. Now it’s a fittingly unlucky 13 years later, and I’ve finally gotten my wish, or at least half of it—a new Netflix series produced by Sonnenfeld, A Series of Unfortunate Events kicks off its initial season this Friday with eight binge-worthy episodes, four of which are indeed directed by the man himself.
Jim Carrey is a tough act to follow in any capacity, but while his gloriously over-the-top turn as the sinister Count Olaf was a cartoon villain come to life, Neil Patrick Harris takes it in another direction, emphasizing the failed actor side of the money-grubbing maniac. Harris’ Olaf speaks pompously and enunciates impeccably as a hammy-and-homicidal stage thespian who requires applause, even as his undercover disguises fool only the dimmest of adults. This isn’t a case of Dan Castellaneta succeeding Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin—think more like Heath Ledger following Jack Nicholson as the Joker: a reinterpretation that works side-by-side with the prior version as a mostly new take.
Still, the toughest role of all to cast is that of faux-author Lemony Snicket himself, the alter-ego of writer Daniel Handler, who scripted the new series. As a reader, I imagined a Christopher Lee sound-alike, while Handler had James Mason in mind. I was resistant to the idea of Patrick Warburton, expecting the usual macho-dumb character he’s so good at when playing pompous heroes, but he’s actually great. Clearly taking Rod Serling as his muse, Warburton’s Snicket moves in and out of active scenes to an unspecified future time where all the locations we’ve previously seen are now in ruins. He’s investigating what happened to the three Baudelaire orphans around whom the stories center, and it’s implied he and Count Olaf have a shared past that may come into play eventually. Warburton brings a world-weariness to the droll narration that suggests perhaps the author himself is suffering from depression, possibly to the point of being unreliable, and that’s why he keeps emphasizing just how awful the tale he’s about to tell is.
For those unfamiliar with the original stories, they play a bit like a cross between the original Addams Family cartoons and the works of Charles Dickens, as three suddenly orphaned children are sent to live with a distant and evil relative (Harris’ Olaf) who plans to marry the eldest, seize the family fortune, and then murder all three. When his initial plan is foiled, he follows them from new guardian to new guardian, nearly always in a disguise that’s patently obvious to the children (and nobody else), and usually successfully ruins whatever chance at happiness was to be had there, before everyone moves on to the next adventure. The brutally desolate world in which the stories occur is full of rainy mountains and scorched-earth debris; civilization looks a mix of steampunk and gothic, with enough modern references (to ordering online, or IT guys) to let us know this is a modern world, but not necessarily ours. There’s also a touch of Wes Anderson (if he went really dark) to the show, especially in the Sonnenfeld-directed ones, as certain vehicles and locales are shot to look deliberately artificial, as if they were toys and the actors paper dolls.
The series so far covers the first four books, with two episodes apiece—essentially making it four movies rather than eight episodes—and each director doing an entire two-parter. Sonnenfeld adapts the first and third books, The Bad Beginning and The Wide Window; Mark Palansky (director of the Sonnenfeld-esque Penelope) takes the second, The Reptile Room; and the fourth, The Miserable Mill, is helmed by production designer Bo Welch, whose previous feature directorial credit, alas, was The Cat in the Hat. Never do they feel like a mere TV budget is constraining what we see; these are more like movies than episodes, but made all at once so that the series springs into being as an actual franchise rather than just a potential one like the original film was.
At the heart of the show are siblings Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and baby Sunny (Presley Smith, with overdubbed baby talk by Tara Strong). Weissman, who has played the young Kara on TV’s Supergirl and young April in the recent Ninja Turtles movies, appears to have been cast in part due to her resemblance to a young Emily Browning (Sucker Punch), who previously played the part. Hynes has almost no previous credits, but the chemistry between he and Weissman is strong. And Smith is clearly an astonishingly docile baby, unafraid of being held most of the time by her onscreen sister.
All told, these protagonists are refreshingly smart and pro-intellectual development: Violet is the science nerd and Klaus the bookworm, with Sunny effectively a super-smart mutant infant with adamantium teeth (or this reality’s equivalent). At times, the show itself appears to be fulfilling an educational mandate: narrator Snicket often pauses to define a big word he’s just used, while other characters frequently try to do likewise to the children, inevitably to be met with the reply, “We know what that means.” And in The Wide Window, the children’s would-be guardian is a grammar-obsessive, at one point using obvious errors to create a hidden message only smart kids would find.
But because we live in a post-J.J. Abrams world, merely adapting the books is not enough. Like every other high-profile show, A Series of Unfortunate Events also has to have its own “mystery box,” with scenes not involving the children pointing to a larger conspiracy narrative surrounding the deaths of their parents. It doesn’t entirely pay off in just these first eight episodes, though it does lead to at least one effective double-bluff moment that you’ll likely only see half-coming.
Does Harris sing? Of course he does! The show’s theme tune, “Look Away,” is all him, and it varies for each two-parter, lapsing into his undercover aliases if Count Olaf has one in that particular episode, and somewhat “spoiling” the basic premise of what you’re about to see. Olaf also gets a show-stopping number about his own glories, and there’s a larger group song I won’t spoil here. But suffice it to say Harris gets to do all the kinds of things he likes to do, including drag, self-referential humor (expect at least one Netflix-related joke per episode), and an extended Sean Connery impersonation for Olaf’s seafaring alter-ego Captain Sham.
Though it would be natural to assume a setting of Dickensian England and cast overwhelmingly pale faces accordingly, this take is both more American and more diverse. The family’s banker, Mr. Poe—played by Timothy Spall on the big screen—is now African-American actor K. Todd Freeman (Mr. Trick on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), whose physicality is the opposite of Spall’s. Aasif Mandvi and Alfre Woodard play different (alleged) relatives the Baudelaires are sent to live with, and their distinctly different skin tones actually make it more natural that the Caucasian children might question whether or not there are blood ties between them. Some viewers might take issue with the way two of Olaf’s evil henchman are, respectively, a person “of indeterminate gender” (clearly cisgender male actor Matty Cardarople in a feminine wig) and a double amputee (Usman Ally) with unwieldy hook hands; without necessarily defending these carry-overs from the book, I will say they are given at least a few funny lines and bits that don’t involve these aspects.
The Sonnenfeld episodes are the best: his Anderson-like artifice in the beginning is a nice entryway into the world, and in his Wide Window episodes, he effortlessly conveys the cold and damp of a run-down lakeside town in a way that will make you want to bundle up while watching. Palansky is the most straightforward director; his two episodes, despite having some stylish locations, feel visually less dynamic, but they do benefit from Aasif Mandvi hamming it up, this time as a good guy. And Welch…well, let’s just assume Mike Myers ran roughshod over him before, because on his own sets, working without any obvious prima donnas, he does a fine job showcasing the excellent production design that of course he wants you take in completely. He also brings in his wife, Catherine O’Hara, to be the only actor in both live-action versions of these books: she previously played Olaf’s kindly neighbor Judge Strauss, here portrayed by Joan Cusack; in this telling, she’s an angry ex-lover of the Count’s.
I’d recommend perhaps not binge-watching every episode at once on this one—take them two at a time, like you’re watching a movie series over four nights. The repeated patterns in the first three can seem excessive if you cram them all at once, but then the last two episodes take a different angle, and…leave you waiting for the next season. Given that there are 13 books, I doubt it’s a huge spoiler to say there isn’t much closure to be found by episode 8’s end.
As a fantasy world, this version of the Snicket-verse is both agreeably juvenile—adults are not to be trusted, as they’re either naive or evil–and refreshingly sophisticated in its notion that the good things in life come from sticking together no matter how bad things get…and they are going to keep getting bad, probably as long as you live. It’s the right level of dark for kids who can take the first couple of Harry Potter books but aren’t yet ready for a Zack Snyder angry superhero movie. It also clearly had a massive budget, almost all of which shows onscreen, and I hope that if subsequent seasons are approved, they won’t have to take a pay cut.
Lemony Snicket, and his theme song, may advise you to look away, but my guess is that most Nerdist readers will not want to follow that advice. We haven’t see a world like this since the fantasy heydays of Terry Gilliam, and I imagine no studio besides Netflix would be quite so casual about a show where most of the jokes are to some degree about child neglect, abuse, and possible murder. The BBC does that kind of morbid humor well, but for once, we’re giving them a run for their money. Here’s to the whole story being told, and inspiring kids of this generation the way movies like Time Bandits did mine.
4 burritos out of 5 (the Sonnenfeld episodes by themselves merit a full 5, however).
A Series of Unfortunate Events arrives on Netflix Jan. 13th. Stay tuned for more detailed recaps once that happens.