“I would advise all our viewers to turn away immediately and watch something more pleasant instead,” Patrick Warburton’s fictional author dryly warns at the start of this Netflix series. Imploring your audience to avoid your lavish adaptation might sound counter-productive but it’s precisely that kind of bleak self-deprecation that made A Series of Unfortunate Events a global success in the noughties.
Deftly tackling gloomy themes of grief, loss and loneliness, Daniel Handler’s (writing under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) best-selling novels enthralled young readers with its oddly addictive blend of grim humour, outlandish villainy and gothic undertones. A mad-cap movie adaptation duly followed in 2004, but a sequel never materialised. Now, some 13 years later, Netflix has stepped up to take a whack at it. And the results are (mostly) scintillating, a word which here means producing a faithful adaptation that’s exceptionally clever, darkly funny and wonderfully weird.
Whereas the move tried to cram the first three books into one catalogue of calamities, the show wisely dedicates two episodes to each novel. This leaves plenty of time to fit in more of Lemony Snicket’s (Warburton) enjoyably sardonic narration and much more of the mystery that the movie could only skim across. That includes evolving a conspiracy surrounding the secretive VFD organisation, which gradually revealed itself in the books, into a 60s-tinged spy caper that plays out in the background of each episode.
It also leaves more room to get to know the three beleaguered Baudelaire children – Violet, Klaus and Sunny – who are orphaned when their parents perish in a very fiery disaster at their lavish mansion. As beautiful, charming and precocious as you could hope to imagine, the Baudelaires retain their defining characteristics: inventiveness, bookishness and biteyness. Like all the best children’s authors, Handler understood the key to writing a great children’s book: make the kids smarter than the adults. Throughout this sorry tale Violet, Klaus and Sunny are routinely failed by the foolish, gullible, incompetent grown-ups around them; and yet they continue to show their courage, resourcefulness and kindness even as more misery is piled upon them.
Which sadly forces us to discuss Count Olaf, the failed actor-turned-failed criminal mastermind who conjures a number of outlandish schemes in order to acquire the Baudelaire fortune. As with the movie, in which Jim Carrey played the monobrowed-machiavellian, the theatricality of the role is amped up to preposterous levels here, giving a game Neil Patrick Harris license to chew every piece of scenery he can curl his grubby fingernails around. Sneering, crooning and flouncing through every one of his scenes, including a suitable rickety song-and-dance number, Harris is clearly having a lot of fun in the role; yet his overzealous performance doesn’t quite fit with Olaf’s underlying malevolence and somewhat undermines the moments when he is genuinely cruel and abusive towards the children.
There are other issues, too. The languid pace of the novels can sometimes drag on screen and the repetitive nature of the stories does not easily lend itself to binge-watching. Nevertheless, A Series of Unfortunate Events is warmly written, exquisitely designed – the wobbly sets recall the whimsical suburbia of early Tim Burton movies – and executed with gusto by all involved. It might not be pleasant viewing, but there’s every reason to keep watching.