A Series of Unfortunate Events

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Do not read this review.

Detailed herein are the reviews of a melancholy writer who, despite the warnings of another writer far greater than he, proceeded to watch the tales of the Baudelaire children, chronicled in the Series of Unfortunate Events and adapted for the television (and laptop) by Netflix.

I was only recently made aware of the new adaptation, though the series has been around for a few years. Having seen the 2004 film in my childhood I was somewhat hesitant in my enthusiasm. The film, though it had its merits, made the common mistake many films have made when trying to adapt a multi-book story. That is to say, they tried to cram too much in and reshaped the story, a mistake which (almost always) gives sub-par results. In fairness, it has been a long time since I saw the film and my opinion may now need renewing. At any rate, after much prodding and prompting, I permitted myself to watch the show.

This was a mistake, but not for the reasons you would expect. You see the problem with this series is not that it lacks quality or is a sub-standard adaptation (though having never read the books I can’t make that claim one way or another). No, the problem is exactly the opposite.

It’s good.

Great in fact. I find myself thoroughly enjoying the show. I am invested, intrigued, fascinated, terrified, frustrated, and angry. I have become so enamoured with this show that I have even made a feeble attempt to write this review in a similar voice to that of the morose narrator Lemony Snicket (played by Patrick Warburton). I find myself loving some characters, such as the eccentric herpetologist Professor Montgomery Montgomery. Other characters I hated, like the frustratingly purblind Mr Poe. Or the shamefully cowardly Aunt Josephine with her obnoxious pedanticism over correct grammar, (in her defense she did suffer a terrible trauma which lead to her variable neurosis).

Then there are those of whom I am genuinely afraid, for their mere presence suggests deception, misfortune, and tragedy. None more so that the loathsome Count Olaf. Olaf is a man whose evil rivals the despicable Iago of Cyprus. The one difference is that his tormenting of the children is motivated by his desire to gain control of their vast inheritance. He murders and tricks his way into the children’s lives and destroys any chance of happiness they have. Olaf is portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris and I do believe this was a role he was born to play. There are two things that will convince me of quality of a character or an actor. One: my feelings for the character are vivid and intense. Two: while watching, I don’t see the actor, I see the character. Harris has fulfilled both these criteria and with Olaf’s multiple disguises and personas, Harris is given a lot of ground to work with.

The actors who play the two older Baudelaire children are Malina Weissman as Violet and Louis Hynes as Klaus and they give excellent performances. While their inexperience does shine through at times, it’s merely a vaguely off delivery of a sentence or a slightly wooden moment.

One thing about this show, and this is in keeping with the trend in several modern shows, is the ambiguous time-period in which the series is set. Some of the architecture is Victorian. Films that the characters watch in the show look like they are from the 1940’s or even earlier. The cars are from the 1920’s/30’s and yet at one point, McCarthyism is mentioned and one character uses a jet-ski to get across a very large lake. Techniques like this create a timeless environment, one which can be relevant to children during any point in time. Margaret Mahy’s teen drama The Changeover features no specific slang or idiom, making it accessible to practically any generation. Series of Unfortunate Events also avoids placing the story in any specific location or time, thereby allowing any child anywhere to relate to it.

This is a tremendously good show and therein lies the danger. It is, to put it plainly, sad. It is a sad show about sad things happening to innocent good children. They are hunted by a psychopath with only hatred in his heart, their every guardian is murdered, and the adults with the power to do something scoff at them for being children and condescend and belittle their fears. In almost every scene, the most intelligent people in the shot are the children and yet, they are the least powerful and hold the least authority. There are themes and concepts which are presented more fully in the books which I won’t go into. Nevertheless, I would recommend you to research them further. Though not, perhaps, before reading the books.

Watching A Series of Unfortunate Events will make you sad. It is a quality show which means you will want to watch it. Each book has been adapted into two 45-minute-long episodes which makes it more digestible. This is a trap. The aficionado in me says “watch it.” However, the happiness in my soul resoundingly says “No!” The choice is yours but in the end you may want, as Neil Patrick Harris suggests in the opening title song, to look away…

-Tim Baker

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