Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events became a publishing phenomenon when it first appeared in 1999. Written by Daniel Handler, under the Snicket pen-name, ASOUA told the story of the Baudelaire children – Violet, Klaus, and baby Sunny – who after the tragic and mysterious death of their parents find themselves under the questionable guardianship of their “closest living relative”, Count Olaf, a man who wants nothing more than access to their considerable inheritance by foul means not fair. Told over a sequence of 13 short novels, ASOUA received acclaim for its bleak, knowingly self-referential style, and for being perhaps the first postmodern work of literature aimed specifically at young adult readers. The first three books in the series were turned into a movie in 2004, featuring Jim Carrey as Olaf – a role seemingly tailor-made for him. Plans for a continuing franchise were eventually shelved because of the length of time the studios took to get around to it. Box office wasn’t that great anyway, despite mainly positive critical response. (It won an Oscar for Best Make Up.)
When Netflix announced in 2014 that it had plans to adapt all the novels in the series, fans such as myself were in heaven. Casting Neil Patrick Harris as the nefarious Count Olaf put one or two skids in some people’s minds, but going from the trailers and cast photographs, such reservations were put to rest. It was all going to come down to how Netflix was going to approach and present the material to its viewership.
Project Fandom contributor Kituria recently wrote an article in our Or Nah? section. You can read it here.
I’ll be reviewing the first season in two-episode blocks, as each of the first four novels in the series comprises two episodes. First up is The Bad Beginning.
We’re introduced to the Baudelaires via an interesting but necessary narrative choice. Lemony Snicket himself, played in a debonair dead-pan and melancholic fashion by Patrick Warburton, breaks the fourth wall at regular intervals, and while his style of narration may be off-putting to some, it’s totally in character with the tone of the novels. Lemony warns us not to proceed any further if we’re of a sensitive disposition, and tells us that we’re better off pursuing more pleasurable activities. But of course, none of us are here for that, so we’re in for the ride, whether we’ll enjoy the eventual destination or not.
While Violet, Klaus and Sunny are busy inventing stuff at a rundown beach near their home, their parents perish in a fire that robs the poor children of everything they hold dear. Breaking the news to them is Mr Poe (K. Todd Freeman), a mild-mannered dry-coughed bank manager. He informs them of this very tragic news, which, in all fairness, the children take very well. It’s as if they’re used to such unhappiness already. They’re clever kids, well read and inventive. You get the impression that if they were left to their own devices, they’d probably do a better job bringing themselves up than any adult would. Violet (Maline Weissman, Supergirl) and Klaus (Louis Hynes) are Young-Scientists-of-the-Year-in-Training; Sunny (Presley Smith) is a baby who likes to bite things and can communicate quite well for a child of his age, albeit in baby language. Together they are a formidable trio who will always watch out for one another. And they will need that unity, because circumstances dictate that the freshly orphaned children must be left in the guardianship of their closest living relative. After spending an awkward night with Poe and his family, the Baudelaires are carted off to the dilapidated castle-like structure Count Olaf lives in. As I mentioned earlier, Olaf is more interested in getting his hands on Violet’s inheritance than he is in caring for their well-being.
I’ll take this juncture to talk about Neil Patrick Harris. He is amazing as the Count. Drawing on his many natural talents, Harris’ Count Olaf is at once theatrically camp and genuinely terrifying. A ham actor at best, Olaf has delusions of grandeur and he surrounds himself with a troupe of yes-men and women. (Remind you of anyone recently?) Harris completely sells the part, portraying Olaf as a sociopathic genius, who relies on the stupidity of the other adults in the show to obtain what he feels is rightfully his. In the second episode, Olaf comes up with a Bond villain plan to actually marry Violet. All he needs are lackeys to willingly take part. Joan Cusack’s well-meaning but hopelessly naïve Justice Strauss eagerly takes part because she always wanted to be an actress. It takes some ingenuity on the part of Violet and Sunny to extricate themselves from the mess other adults have gotten them in. In a regular non-Lemony Snicket world, child protection services would be all over Count Olaf like a bad suit. But this is a world where the children must look out for themselves, despite the best intentions of Poe and Justice Strauss.
As for the world in which these characters live: Netflix took the time and money to create a place that’s both in and out of time – anachronistic and ever so steampunky, all gears and cogs, mimicking Violet and Klaus’ inventive minds. It’s a world full of imagery and secret societies; a world where dead parents aren’t actually dead (Mother and Father are played by Colby Smothers [Marvel’s Avengers] and Will Arnett [Arrested Development and The Lego Movie]); a world lovingly and craftily created.
Readers of the books will be thrilled to see the pages come to life. From Olaf’s troupe (Usman Ally’s Hook-Handed Man is a particular delight), to the children themselves (Sunny Baudelaire is hilarious), the production hits all the right notes.
By the end of the opening two-parter, Olaf’s plans have been foiled and another close relative has been located. Meanwhile Justice Strauss is looking up adoption law in her extensive library. But the future looks bleak for the Baudelaires, and like Lemony Snicket we can only watch on in despair. But watch on we will.
Next up is The Reptile Room. Dare you enter?
ASoUE- Book One
"The Bad Beginning"
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, K. Todd Freeman, Joan Cusack, Cobie Smulders, Will Arnett, Usman Ally.
Available through Netflix, streaming now.