Alibi V.26 No.3 • Jan 19-25, 2017 

Idiot Box

Good Grief

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” on Netflix

The 13 books that make up Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events are a sort of absurdist literary mash-up of Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey. Back in 2004 an attempt was made to translate the popular book series into a film franchise. Although a minor success at the box office, the movie version haphazardly conflated at least three of the books and was seen as less of an acting opportunity for star Jim Carrey and more of a late-career chance to mug it up. Unsurprisingly, it failed to result in any sequels. Now, franchise-generating machine Netflix has committed to a leisurely small-screen adaptation of “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and the results are as darkly glorious as fans could hope.

The series is written and produced by Daniel Handler, better known by his pen name Lemony Snicket. This ensures strict quality control over the final product, which sticks quite closely to the source material. Supervising it all is director and executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld, whose cheerfully campy style (seen in TV series like “Pushing Daisies” and “The Tick” and in movies like The Addams Family and Men in Black) matches perfectly with Handler’s skewed vision.

The series centers around the gloomy adventures of the Baudelaire children, 14-year-old mechanical genius Violet (Malina Weissman), 12-year-old bookworm Klaus (Louis Hynes) and teething toddler Sunny (Presley Smith). When the Baudelaire family mansion burns down, the orphaned trio are stuck in the care of their “nearest living relative,” kooky theatrical actor Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris, who’s clearly having the time of his life). Up-to-no-good Olaf spends his time figuring out various ways to steal the sizable inheritance of the Baudelaire children. The wise-beyond-their-years orphans, meanwhile, spend their time trying to outwit the cruel Count. The whole affair is narrated by Lemony Snicket himself (the uncharacteristically despondent Patrick Warburton), a cynical and rather obsessed author with his own mysterious backstory to tell.

The show begins with Snicket begging the audience to turn away and watch something else. The tale he has to tell is far too depressing. Though it flirts with all manner of peril—from kidnapping to murder—this suburban gothic tale is rife with sharp humor and literary wit. (An ongoing argument over the use of the words “literal” and “figurative,” for example, enlivens the second episode.)

The production design is intentionally cartoony, placing the show in an anachronistic, over-the-top, 1930s-esque world. Production designer Bo Welch (The Lost Boys, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Birdcage, Men in Black) is responsible for the show’s distinctive, CGI-heavy look—which would be overpowering if the actors weren’t so notable in their roles. Harris is the best of the lot as the evil, egotistical and entirely hammy Count Olaf. His winking performance even tosses in a Broadway-style song or two, just for fun.

The eight episodes of Netflix’s first season manage to get through four of the books, and the streaming service has already committed to seasons two and three—meaning there’s plenty more where this weird, wonderful black comedy came from.

The first season of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is available for streaming now on Netflix.