Do not read this review of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” a Netflix original based off a popular children’s novel series. It will not give you any more joy than simply watching the show. You would be better off if you stopped reading now, logged in to Netflix, and began watching the long-form television series that captures the grim whimsy of its beloved source material.
If you can’t, my deepest condolences. Here’s the gist: after the Baudelaire siblings — Klaus, the smart one, Violet, the other smart one, and Sunny the other other smart one — learn that they’ve lost their home and parents to a mysterious fire, they’re spirited away by the well-meaning but incompetent banker Mr. Poe and placed in the hands of the despicable theater actor Count Olaf.
Written by Daniel Handler under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, the book series, equal parts tragedy and comedy, was a rare work of young adult fiction. Some readers might have been too young to appreciate the dark humor, but it’s hard to imagine someone too old for the series’ clever writing and steady pacing.
The Netflix adaptation, written by Handler and directed mostly by “Pushing Daisies” mastermind Barry Sonnenfeld, generally captures the dark comedy of the books. While the ghost of Jim Carrey’s singular 2004 performance looms over Neil Patrick Harris, the new count’s no slouch. Harris is at once terrifying, amusing and cruelly calculating.
Patrick Warburton, as private eye-cum-narrator Lemony Snicket, is the real treat, however. Pitch-black and pitch-perfect, Warburton’s author-avatar delivers grim exposition and hints at tantalizing conspiracies — including a subplot involving super spies in Peru — while capturing the droll humor of Handler’s prose perfectly.
Less remarkable are the Baudelaire orphans.
Violet and Klaus, played by Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes, respectively, lack personality other than their aforementioned intelligence. Sunny, whose dialog in the books often showed Handler’s knack for wordplay and subtle references, is voiced by a cloying Tara Strong and played mostly for baffling CGI sight gags.
The orphans are an interesting counterpoint to Snicket. Whereas Snicket seemed like an extraneous plot device in the first couple of books, here he’s employed almost immediately as a legitimate character, complete with his own compelling motivations and stake in the story.
At the end of the first episode, the orphans, looking at the squalor of Count Olaf’s mansion, ask themselves if their new home is “better than nothing.” Klaus seems to believe it is despite a smack across the face from his new guardian minutes prior. Violet and later Snicket say otherwise and argue that in especially grim circumstances, nothing can be preferable to something.
Not such a bad beginning after all, the Netflix adaptation’s early episodes, with their all-star creators and generally great cast, are definitely better than nothing.
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