Children's & Middle Grade · TV & Movies

Review: Netflix’s Series of Unfortunate Events

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I’ve been anxiously awaiting Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events since the first announcement, and it’s surpassed by wildest expectations. Rich aesthetics, witty and gripping, manages to be unexpected despite my love of the books, and the whole production team seems to have wholeheartedly embraced creating this slightly off-kilter world. And it has an intro sequence with a song! I love those and nobody does them anymore!

Most importantly, I LOVE the role of Lemony Snicket. The narrator’s presence is a HUGE part of the book series and they capture that really well here. Patrick Warburton’s casting and performance are brilliant. His lines, and a lot of visual tidbits, reward those few of us who read the whole series all the way to The End. Neil Patrick Harris is also the ideal Count Olaf, wacky and weird and over-the-top, but still threatening. The whole show is like that, really… It’s quirky to be sure, but still dark, and not just in tone. Olaf’s abuse may be mostly unrealistic, a children’s-literature version of oppressive chores, but it’s still abuse and creepy AF .The further along it goes, the more palpable the Baudelaires’ helplessness becomes. And Sunny is great — the CGI doesn’t always look totally natural, but giving her snarky lines and impossibly-talented teeth like in the book was absolutely necessary.

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Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf

In general, the series will naturally be compared to the 2004 movie, and I’m doing it too, but I think it’s a bit unfair…they’re very similar and the series basically achieves what the movie was trying to do but failed to pull off. Thank you, Netflix, for all the blessings you rain upon us, and the narrative options for which you make space. Netflix’s Series is funny, but it’s not a comedy, and it’s scary, but it’s not horror, and it’s dramatic, but not a drama. It’s different, and equally important, it doesn’t try to be for children. That’s one of the reasons it works so well. The people who loved that series in 1997 grew up with it and are adults now.

Speaking of children and the movie, as my comments about Snicket and Olaf probably reflect, I like that the Baudelaires play a less-important role. It’s a shame that they look so similar to the movie versions, though. That movie wasn’t great, yet somehow its visuals are etched into my brain, especially where the actor portrayals are concerned, and it’d be easier to differentiate them if the characters looked a bit more different. The supporting characters are styled quite differently, and more diversely in many cases, so it just strikes me as particularly odd. That said, those supporting characters are just as brilliant as Snicket and Olaf! With every change of setting I got excited to see who the next guest star will be, and I was never disappointed. (I should note here that “The Miserable Mill” is a little questionable though. It’s not exactly homophobic or transphobic, but not queer-positive either, so it’s just uncomfortable.)

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Partners! I can’t decide if this is normalizing or stereotyping. (Rhys Darby and Don Johnson as Charles and Sir, with Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket in between. This is also the book where Count Olaf is disguised as a female secretary.)

Of course, there wasn’t just a movie, there were books! Glorious books! And most of the criticism I’ve seen centers on changes from the books, to which I say: Bah! The main difference is incorporating more spy-type “secret organization” action intertwining with the Baudelaires’ story, which is an improvement in the TV context. The books might’ve benefited from more continuity and recurring characters too, to get you through the mid-series hump. Plus that raises a rather interesting question… If the author makes the changes, and he did, in what sense are they changes? How can one argue that such a change is illegitimate? It’s not the same as tampering with an existing work (Han shot first) and it’s not the same as a movie studio taking a work and cutting it up. It’s Daniel Handler reinterpreting what he’s already written, which is an opportunity for us as fans to get more of what we liked without it being ruined. (And, avoiding the most devastating of spoilers, I’ll just say don’t jump to conclusions. All is not as it seems.)

As a startlingly-devoted fan of the books, I love this show. I can’t vouch for what it’s like as a total newcomer, but I’ve heard from several people that they’re enjoying it without ever having read the series. Either way, you should really do both. Seasons 2 and 3 are on the way!

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