I suppose that’s the thing with a streaming series these days. Either you’re the kind of person who jumps on board immediately or you’re the type who waits it out, gives it some time to breathe (and garner reviews) and then you dip a toe or two in. Though Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events dropped in January, I’ve taken my own sweet time exploring it. Back in the books’ heyday I read them all in their entirely (even The Beatrice Letters) and reported on the rather epic closing party held for the series which occurred at the beginning of my career in 2006 (there were snakes in the bathroom – enough said). I bought the Gothic Archies album The Tragic Treasury and became a bit too enamored of the song How Do You Slow This Thing Down? And I watched the movie. And remembered much of it.
So. I was a fan back in the day and when the fake trailer for the Netflix series aired I was entirely on board with the program. Then it came out in January and life got busy. I’ve only now gotten a chance to watch it, though I’ve read some of the opinions out there. I should mention that this will all make a bit more sense if you’ve read the books yourself. It’s not entirely required, but it helps.
The easiest thing is to compare this series to is the Jim Carrey film, an odd little amalgamation that wasn’t ever comfortable in its own skin. The best you could say of that movie was that it had an incredible title sequence at the end (though I’ve always harbored a soft spot in my heart for Billy Connolly’s all too brief appearance). At the time it was seen primarily as a Jim Carrey vehicle and it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that in comparison Neal Patrick Harris’s Olaf is downright restrained. But there are some similarities to consider. The look of the characters owes some credit to Lemony Snicket’s descriptions, but far more to Brett Helquist. Indeed, I don’t think Helquist gets enough credit for really establishing the look of Olaf. Carrey and Harris are replicas of his illustrations (particularly in the eyebrow department), while in the Netflix series Violet’s bangs should also be footnoted. Back, I was happy to see, were Klaus’s glasses. Apparently while glasses are forbidden in Hollywood films, they’re just fine on the small screen.
The set design is fascinating as well, and to this we owe credit to no one but Snicket himself. The books always occupied a time that was never a time. An era when you could find outdated technology and up-to-the-minute ideas. So it is that the Netflix series will show an old-fashioned fire truck within the first five minutes while also making streaming jokes and references to the internet. A friend described the series as akin to Wes Anderson, and that’s not wrong. It also owes a great deal of allegiance, however, to Rod Serling. And there is no character as Serling-esque as Snicket himself.
To my great surprise, Lemony Snicket isn’t the shadow Jude Law-ish figure you only see in fedora-ed retreat in the film. Even in the books he was your off-stage guide. Here he’s played by Patrick Warburton, a bit of inspired casting that never would have occurred to me in a million years. If you, like me, associate him primarily as Puddy from Seinfeld then you’ll know that in the past he’s excelled in doing doofuses. I’d only heard his voice work lately, and would have forgotten him entirely but for this. As Snicket he does a killer Serling imitation. The deadpan delivery perfectly alleviates the dire nature of his words. Plus you get to see him in an old-fashioned bathing suit in the first episode so . . . y’know. Win.
The show begins with a song, making full use of Daniel Handler’s lyrics (he wrote ’em) and Neil Patrick Harrison’s singing. It’s sort of what you’d get if Conspiracy Theory mixed with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog. I felt this odd little twinge of regret that they didn’t use that old Scream and Run Away song that Handler would launch into on his Unfortunate Events tours. It was sort of a modern take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and while I like the new song just fine, there’s a significant lack of Stephen Merritt in its DNA.
Neil Patrick Harris is allowed to sing in the show as well, which is lovely. His performance reminded me of nothing so much as Bertie Carvel’s in the stage production of Matilda. It’s that hair-trigger wavering between funny and crazy scary. He’s a true threat, though he also elicits laughs. Harris also adds the little touch of Olaf feeling put upon constantly. Though he’s utterly incompetent he feels heads and tails superior to his colleagues and the number of eye rolls he does begins to add up. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a subtler performance than Carrey’s but no less full-bodied. He clearly relishes this role.
Now I was very curious to see the degree to which this show was going to commit to the bit (so to speak). The original book series is amusingly bleak, and manages to brilliantly distance the reader from the text through the filter of Mr. Snicket himself. In the web series, the same thing is done but with that aforementioned Wes Anderson style. Characters deliver lines with subtlety (unless they’re bad guys, of course). I was amazed to see that they kept the Olaf/Klaus slap, which is mediated slighted by having his cohorts find it as repugnant as the audience does. But it’s the child bride aspect where I was truly amazed. In the original film of the first three books they downplayed the creepy factor of Olaf’s incipient marriage to Violet. Here, they dive into it head first. There’s a moment when Klaus says Olaf will never touch their money, whereupon the nasty cur slides up to Violent and places a hand on her shoulder saying, “Oh, I’ll touch anything I want.” Adult eyes will bug out of their heads. Kids won’t necessarily get it.
However (and this is a big however) at the same time someone must have gotten nervous. There is one way in which the series then turns right around and adds an element that downplays the dark dank of depression. This involves the VFD spies flitting around in the background, seemingly meaning to keep the kids safe. They’re ineffectual, but present, offering child viewers a kind of comfort blanket. Yes, adults are stupid and often very harmful, but at least there are a couple good ones hiding in the wings. I won’t go into the fact that the series also makes it appear that the Baudelaires’ parents aren’t quite so dead. Played by Will Arnett and Colby Smulders (Fun Fact: Both are in The Lego Movie) we see only glimpses of their peril as they attempt to make their ways back to their children. That little detail gets cleared up before the end of the first season, and gave me a great bit of relief when it was resolved.
Each episode is half a book. Four books have been turned into eight episodes with more on the way. There is also a fair amount of padding. I know the books are thin, but I was surprised by the amount of original writing the series required. And interestingly enough, I was most delighted by the extra time given to Count Olaf’s acting troupe. They’re magnificent! They deliver their lines so beautifully you’re often inclined to hope that the camera will linger on them just a little bit longer before moseying back to the kids. Not that the kids aren’t good. I’m convinced they must have either drugged those babies (twins usually play baby roles in films) or done something else to them since I’ve never seen that degree of emotional acuity in an infant actor. Don’t be surprised if you kinda want a baby of your own after watching enough of this.
With all that extra writing, there are times when the episodes sag a little. They slow down. They saunter. And I was left wondering if kids would actually enjoy watching this. A friend who also happens to be a school librarian told me in no uncertain terms that, yes, kids are not only watching the series but enjoying it and checking out the books in droves. How did they hear about it in the first place? No idea. But something about it is connecting with them.
I could go into the Jewish themes in the show, but you can get it straight from the horse’s mouth in Handler’s interview with New Voices. I was going to complain that Handler should really have a cameo when sharp eyed reader Chandra pointed out that he already does (and it’s selling fish heads – heaven). In any case, I’m a fan. A somewhat surprised fan, but a fan. Seeing Netflix commit to this series gives a person hope. What other children’s book series could we see in this format? Lockwood & Co.? The Lunar Chronicles? And, dare I suggest it, the Harry Potter books?
The mind boggles.
The world is quiet here.