BY DYLYN PETERSON
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong
Thirteen years after the polarizing film rendition, the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events debuted to markedly mixed reactions. None of the elements comfortably rest as either good or bad. In a similar way, it improves upon and is inferior to both its source material (a childrens’ book series of the same name by Lemony Snicket) and the 2004 film. I suppose it is unambiguously better than the movie in that it adapts the first four books instead of the first three, but that’s neither here nor there.
I suppose these books could be too old to be nostalgic to some of our readers, so here’s a synopsis: after the tragic deaths of their parents in a suspicious fire, the Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are chased across a number of locales by the villainous Count Olaf, who wears a variety of disguises and commits a variety of murders in his quest to take control of the children’s enormous fortune. There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue built up throughout the series, but I can’t comment on that for spoilery reasons.
The Netflix series was highly anticipated. This had two causes: first, the book series was very popular; and second, Count Olaf is played by Neil Patrick Harris. Although it may seem like a minor element, that fact is integral to the show. In what I can only assume is a bid to riff off of the goodwill of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, NPH sings the theme song. Wait, sorry, not just the theme song…all four variations of the theme song. He also sings a song to introduce Count Olaf…ten minutes after Count Olaf is introduced. It’s odd. Luckily, he gives a great performance, although the script occasionally gives him little to work with.
Speaking of great performances, holy crap is Patrick Warburton good as Lemony Snicket, the author and narrator of the books. Unlike the pure silhouette of the film, Snicket appears on-screen often, standing right in the middle of things, reading the most elaborate, funny, and stilted of lines with the straightest possible face. It’s kind of astonishing. The show has its low points (the two episodes devoted to The Wide Window, for example), but Warburton raises the material every time he appears. I recommend the show just for his work on it; if you’re not interested in seven hours of children’s television, I’m sure a supercut will appear on YouTube soon enough.
Sadly, not every character is so well-portrayed. The Baudelaires, for example, don’t have actors as talented as the movie did, and they occasionally give their lines as if at gunpoint. I rather liked Aasif Mandvi’s Uncle Monty, although he wasn’t quite as charming as the movie version. I’m sure he would’ve been if he’d had the chance to play the harp, too. Aunt Josephine, whose actress, Alfre Woodard, was on Luke Cage (the subject of one of my previous reviews), could be compared to the version from the film…but seeing that Aunt Josephine was played by Meryl Streep in the movie, I decline to comment upon her performance for political reasons. Suffice to say that Woodard could’ve done better.
The show has major pacing problems, as well. Some scenes go by much too fast, ending before one can get settled into them, cutting off interesting character interactions. Other scenes seem to last an eternity, hyperfocused on immature, unfunny jokes. Despite having between ninety and a hundred minutes to adapt each book, the show takes huge liberties with the source material, mostly in the form of extended sequences designed to appeal to small children.
It’s in this area where Unfortunate Events runs into the most problems. Despite the books’ nature as a dark comedy, the show invests many lines, paragraphs, and minutes of our lives we’ll never get back on the difference between literally and figuratively (the latter of which it actually defines incorrectly), “hilarious” scenes of Count Olaf’s theater troupe giving him haphazard assistance in his various schemes, trying and failing repeatedly to make a thing out of the kids knowing the meaning of words that adults try to explain to them. It seems the show doesn’t realize its own nature: an adaptation of a series whose audience has grown up into adults (who binge watch whole shows on Netflix in one sitting).
But it also has elements that work well. It introduces some parts of the various mysteries set up in the books much earlier than normal, and develops them a bit better than the books did. Some changes, such as the nature of a lot of the events with Uncle Monty, make the events a lot sadder (and therefore better) than they were previously. And it is nice to revisit a childhood story again.
I’m nothing if not unbiased, though, so I give Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events four equally plausible phrases to fit the initials V.F.D. out of seven.