By Matthew E. Owen, Contributing Media Critic for SatelliteWerx.com
“Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events” is one of the newest Netflix originals, and it’s pretty quirky. Not to say that the franchise hasn’t been before; it’s a series based on the popular young adult books of the same name. This isn’t the first time an adaptation of the books has been produced either, with a 2004 feature film receiving lukewarm reviews. Netflix looks to shake it up by adding more detail and following the books closer than before. The question is whether or not it works. Whether you’re a fan of the books or a complete newcomer, this review will tell you what you need to know.
Firstly, I want to address the tone of the series. “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is known for being pretty dark in tone, opting for more of a dark comedy than an adventure. The Netflix series is considerably darker than the film before it, though it never quite reaches the level of depression that the books accomplish. The story follows the three Baudelaire orphans immediately following the death of their parents in a household fire. All three children are very intelligent, including the baby Sunny, who enjoys chewing on rock hard objects. Each child has their quirks and oddities, but they love each other unconditionally.
As the children bounce from foster home to foster home they’re pursued by the evil Count Olaf, played by Neil Patrick Harris. Count Olaf centers as our main villain constantly scheming to gain access to the Baudelaire fortune left to the children. Neil Patrick Harris does a great job here and stands out as one of the best performances in the entire series. As the series progresses, Olaf dons several different poorly constructed disguises, and it was honestly a treat to see Neil Patrick Harris in each new costume.
Speaking of performances, the entire series is incredibly well rounded. All three child actors absolutely knock it out of the park as the Baudelaires, with support characters like Mr. Poe playing their roles to perfection. This is also true for the visual style of the series, which is unique but well realized. The camera plays favorites to mid shots during dialogue, and while this was a bit disappointing, the overall cinematography is great. There’s some truly wondrous shots midway through the show, but I won’t spoil anything here. At the very least, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a well-acted, well shot, and cohesive story. Unfortunately, that’s something that can’t be said for every Netflix original. It’s nice to see the attention to detail and quality with such a beloved franchise.
For all the aspects that “A Series” does well, there are a few that fall quite flat. Some of this has to do with book integration and the overall idea of parity with each book. To give you an idea, the season is made up of eight episodes. Each book in the series is allotted two episodes of coverage meaning books one through four are adapted in season one. Besides the book-to-book antics, there’s an over arching sub-plot dealing with secret societies. This is handled similarly to how it’s handled in the book, but with a little less explanation. This can cause confusion for those who haven’t read the books, or simply forgot the finer plot details. It’s a small gripe, but one that made the finale a little weaker in my opinion.
The biggest issue is Lemony Snicket who our narrator and guide through the show. His role plays out much like it does in the books interjecting every few scenes to let the audience in on some information. The character of Snicket is played wonderfully by Patrick Warbuton but the issue does not lie in the performance. Unfortunately, Lemony Snicket has an issue with spoiling parts of the show in his interjections. You’ll be enjoying an episode only to have Snicket interrupt and spoil an upcoming death or sequence. While this is how it plays out in the books it doesn’t transfer properly to television. It’s a creative choice that I didn’t agree with, but a creative choice nonetheless.
In conclusion, “Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events” is an enjoyable dark comedy with great performances and beautiful cinematography. Although it can be a bit heavy handed at times the narrative is immersive and entertaining. If you can put up with Lemony Snicket dropping in and spoiling key events for you there’s definitely a good time to be had. As a package, it’s not perfect. However, knowing Hollywood and book adaptations, this is probably the best on-screen version of the franchise that we’ll see. Taking that into consideration, I’m fine with it. I look forward to the debut of season two, and recommend giving season one a viewing.