If you’re looking to ruin your day, than Netflix has a great show for you.
Daniel Handler’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is Netflix’s new project. Written under the pseudonym “Lemony Snicket,” the 13-book series was Daniel Handler’s gothic horror absurdist children’s series. The Netflix show incorporates these same genre elements into its eight-episode first season.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events,” or “ASOUE,” follows the orphaned Baudelaire siblings as they try to escape the villainous Count Olaf. The siblings: Violet, Klaus and Sunny are extremely clever and it’s delightful to watch them come up with inventive ways to foil Olaf (although Sunny is a baby and mostly just bites). Minor characters make quick two-episode appearances, but most are unusual and memorable. Dr. Montgomery Montgomery — which is the character’s actual name — is a friendly herpetologist who knew the Baudelaire’s parents. While the siblings are immediately concerned with avoiding Count Olaf, the overall plot incorporates the mystery of their parents’ deaths and a secret society. The viewer is told their tale through the mysterious Lemony Snicket, who is a character in the series as well as the author’s pseudonym.
In 2007, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was adapted into a movie by Nickelodeon. Although it technically portrayed Handler’s first three books, the plot was mixed together and Handler did not like the movie’s portrayal. The movie did not reach enough critical acclaim for a sequel.
Netflix’s series is more forgiving to the timing of books, allowing two episodes for every book in the series. In addition, Handler wrote the scripts for five of the episodes. With two episodes per book, the Netflix series gracefully handles the nuances of Handler’s gothic mystery.
Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” incorporates narrative quirks. These are partially stylistic and partially due to the absurdist nature of Handler’s book series. “ASOUE” is set vaguely in the mid-twentieth century, without modern technology. Although Netflix’s series is implied (via presence of American accents) to take place in the United States, the character of Justice Strauss wears a wig while she works, like judges in Britain. Characters are oddly obsessed with the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively.’ By incorporating these weird nuances into the show, only some of which appeared in the book series, “ASOUE” reflects the book series’ absurdity.
One of the more clever devices that Netflix uses is having Lemony Snicket as an in-character narrator to the audience. Although the viewer is concerned for the fate of the charismatic Baudelaire siblings, having Snicket periodically interject reminds the audience that he is documenting their story for us. It also heightens the show’s mystery, as Lemony Snicket usually appears when a major plot point is imminent. Viewers know next to nothing about Lemony Snicket, except that he has been tasked with discovering the Baudelaire’s fates.
Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes are excellent as Violet and Klaus, especially considering that they are child actors. I thought that the decision to have Sunny portrayed by a real baby rather than a CGI one was smart, as there is no creepy “uncanny valley” effect. I’m interested to see how the Netflix series justifies the actors aging between seasons; if there is a second season, will Sunny be recast? Neil Patrick Harris portrays the villainous Count Olaf, even singing the show’s “warning” theme song about how depressing it’s going to be.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” does show unfortunate events. It’s based on a children’s series, but a gothic one – the Baudelaires struggle, face evil and face losses. Despite that, the characters are interesting, the plot is clever and it will be interesting to see how the mystery unravels if Netflix does a second series.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” isn’t just for people who are nostalgic for the book series. Netflix has created a delightfully odd gothic mystery that stands strong on its own.