Everyone’s favorite abused orphans are back in Netflix’s new original series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Based on the bestselling books by Lemony Snicket, all eight episodes of the first season debuted on January 13th (Friday the 13th, no less).
The show is ultimately a mixed bag, a phrase here meaning that while it boasts beautiful production design, clever writing, and a few standout performances, Unfortunate Events is also marred by a lack of focus, an uncomfortable tone, and too much hamming from a few actors.
The show, narrated by Lemony Snicket himself (played by Patrick Warburton) follows the three, recently orphaned Baudelaire children: Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny (Presley Smith). Left with an enormous fortune inaccessible until they turn 18, the Baudelaire’s are haunted by the villainous Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris of How I Met Your Mother fame). Olaf, hungry for the fortune, follows the orphans in disguise from caretaker to caretaker, attempting to steal the money at every turn.
Among the mostly well-meaning but constantly failing adults meant to care for the Baudelaire’s is their incredibly naive keeper of their estate, Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman); the kind-hearted Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack); a renowned herpetologist, Uncle Monty (Aasif Mandvi); and their panophobic Aunt, Josephine (Alfre Woodard). Each fails in their own way to protect the Baudelaire’s from Count Olaf, in ways both funny and heartbreaking.
As far as television programs go, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a beautiful one. Reportedly Netflix’s most expensive production to date, the show beautifully captures the feel of Brett Helquist’s original illustrations from the books. The writing is also up to par with the novels as most episodes’ writing is credited to Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket’s real name).
Unfortunately, the series suffers from an unclear purpose. While the books took many entries before exploring the central mysteries behind the Baudelaires’ parents, the show dives headfirst into them from the first episode. However, it almost always feels like too much or too little is being revealed. At the same time, the show really struggles with its tone. The books and the 2004 film starring Jim Carrey were all adept at balancing its dark subject matter and sadder storylines with a macabre sense of humor. Here, Netflix seems too afraid to commit to the darker elements and underplays them with downright silliness.
Still, a few of the performers are an absolute delight to watch. While Neil Patrick Harris doesn’t bring the danger to the role of Count Olaf that Jim Carrey did, he’s still often wickedly funny, as are his henchmen. The real standout performance comes from Warburton as Snicket. His dry but sad delivery is a stark contrast from his dumb oaf roles of the past.
On the other hand, other performers such as Freeman and Woodard are often guilty of hamming it up far too much onscreen and sometimes become nuisances. And even though Smith makes a delightful Sunny, Weissman is merely decent as Violet, and Hynes is increasingly annoying as Klaus, making it somewhat difficult to root for the Baudelaire’s.
While imperfect, A Series of Unfortunate Events still has moments that make it worth watching, especially for fans of the books. If we ourselves are fortunate, maybe by the time Season 2 rolls around, the series will have found its footing.