The Buzz: We’re fortunate for Neil Patrick Harris
If you are reading this article, that means you are most likely aware of the existence of the new Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the darkly comedic children’s book series written by Lemony Snicket. If reading about dagger sharp writing, eye-popping production, and tremendous acting does not appeal to you, then I advise you close out of this article immediately, and go pursue reading about something much more pleasant, perhaps a show such as Goliath. For those of you brave enough to indulge in such televised creativity, read on.
A Series of Unfortunate Events season 1 review: Lemony Snicket’s prolific series was long due for a proper screen adaptation. The series, which was published from 1999 to 2006, offered a gothic and dark alternative to the Harry Potter series for children with questionably dark taste in literature, like me. The first three book were adapted into a movie in 2004, which never was allotted a sequel despite being a commercial and critical success. And so, there was a decade’s worth of anticipation mounted on the Netflix show.
As a fan of the books for basically as long as I can remember, the Netflix adaptation lives up to my expectations in almost every way. The effort is certainly bolstered by Daniel Handler’s presence in the production (Lemony Snicket is Handler’s pseudonym). Each book, which this early on in the series hardly extend over 200 pages, were given two 45-minute episodes to be fully explored and fleshed out, giving the series more than enough time it needs to explore its premise and set up its trademark mysterious lore that is always dangling tantalizing secrets in the background of nearly every scene.
The first episode opens with the three Baudelaire children taking a trip to Briny Beach on a dark and cloudy day, immediately establishing the dramatic irony both the books and the show thrive on. All three children are perfectly cast, their appearance and personalities plucked straight from the pages. Violet (Malina Weissman), the oldest at 14, has a knack for inventing curious items; Klaus (Louis Hynes) is more well-read than most adults in the series at age 12, and his knowledge often comes in handy; and Sunny (Presley Smith) is an infant who uses her teeth to bite objects into any shape is required.
The three children are enjoying their day on the otherwise deserted beach when banker Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) emerges from the fog to inform them their parents have perished in a terrible fire that burned down their entire home. The series follows the orphans as they repeatedly move in with a long line of guardians who, one by one, prove themselves incompetent or unable to raise them in some way. First in line is Count Olaf, their supposed third cousin four times removed –or maybe it was their fourth cousin three times removed.
Enter Neil Patrick Harris, who is given a behemoth of a role with Olaf. His appearance remarkably matches his description in the books, with his hair slicked back in a triangular shape, a hook nose, and a menacing tattoo of an eye on his ankle. Olaf’s mansion is filthy, and he allows one child-sized bed for the three children. He’s clearly not interested in giving the children a proper home – instead, he’s after the sizable Baudelaire fortune, which Violet will inherit in four years when she turns 18.
Harris’s portrayal of Olaf is erratic and magnetic, a force you can’t look away from. He tones down the outlandishness of Jim Carrey’s portrayal in the film, but is still able to channel enough quirks to make his character a delight to watch. Harris is able to walk a fine line between funny and despicable. His ruthless actions, such as hanging babies in birdcages and framing snakes for murder, are balanced by his ability to entertain. Harris is able to perfectly embody the tone of the series.
From source material as wide and varied as the books, the show doesn’t linger on one setting or plot point for too long. We are zipped to drastically different settings every two episodes, each more visually pleasing than the last. The dimness of Olaf’s mansion is juxtaposed nicely against the pastel brightness of the surrounding town; and the Reptile Room, the main setting of the third and fourth episodes, is packed with imaginative CGI reptiles. It’s as visually textured as the books were layered with lore in Snicket’s unique postmodern narration.
Patrick Warburton plays Snicket himself, physically representing the narration from the books. Warburton guides the story with his somberness . For those new to the series, his frequent interludes could seem disruptive to the series, as he sometimes pauses to explain a phrase that most people already know the meaning of (such as ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’).
At its core, this has always been a series about discovery. Just as the orphans discover that their seemingly random adventures may all be connected, the readers are able to sleuth their own puzzles as well. There are enough visual hints and connections for the reader to draw their own conclusions about certain mysteries that just bubble under the surface of the main story. The show alludes much more strongly to the mysteries that surround the later books almost immediately, scattering Easter eggs for fans of the books to enjoy, and either increasing the confusion or intrigue (or possibly both) of the slew of new fans, young and old, the show will inevitably garner. I urge you to ignore Warburton’s urgencies, dear reader. Do not look away from this series.