A Series of Unfortunate Events calls itself dreadful. Its most recognizable star, Neil Patrick Harris, sings a theme song in which he urges you to look away. Spare yourself, it warns, from this sordid tale in which three children lose their parents in a terrible fire and are forced to live with a dreadful actor who only wants to steal their sizable inheritance from them.
You would do well to ignore that advice, because A Series of Unfortunate Events is worth watching.
When Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire's parents are killed in a fire that destroys their home, they are sent to live with their "closest living relative," which the kind but utterly incompetent banker Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) interprets as meaning "relative within the closest physical proximity." In this case, that's Count Olaf (Harris), a man who lives in a dilapidated house and whom Baudelaire's have never met before.
The children, though young, are smarter than most of the adults around them. Klaus, the middle child, is especially bright and has a fondness for reading. Violet, the eldest, is an inventor able to see new machines where others would see only junk. And Sunny, the baby, can't speak English (though this doesn't prevent her siblings from understanding her every word) but she can bite and chew her way through many sticky situations.
Olaf makes no attempt to hide that he has taken the orphans in for no reason but to get his hands on their family's fortune, which he is dismayed to learn is locked up until Violet comes of age. Thus begins a series of dastardly plots that involve marriage, murder, makeup and even optometry, all with the goal of getting his hands on the Baudelaire fortune. He has a group of henchmen (members of his theater troupe) doing his bidding, but his greatest sin might be that pronounces the T in "merlot."
And because it's not enough for the children to simply escape disaster in each episode, there are also hints of a much broader plot involving a secret organization and secrets about the Baudelaire parents that the children, smart as they are, had no idea about. (Those questions, of course, are set up but rarely answered. You need to have something to look forward to in future seasons, after all.)
Based on the popular children's book series of the same name by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler), this Netflix series is actually the second screen adaptation of the story. The first, a movie released in 2004 with Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, was received favorably, but it only covered three of the 13 books in the series and a sequel was never made.
Don't let the "children's book" part scare you off. While younger audiences are likely to get the most out of A Series of Unfortunate Events (despite its dark tone and open talk of murder), this is also a show that references both Walden and McCarthyism.
The show also explains the difference between "literally" and "figuratively," so it should be required viewing for all ages.
It's a story about children written with an eye toward adults but geared toward kids.
The eight-episode series covers the first four books, with each book being split into two roughly 45-minute episodes. The separation is good, because each book varies wildly in terms of its setting and many of its principal characters, which makes for an oddly-paced film but a refreshingly varied TV show.
Olaf infiltrates each new setting with a different disguise, allowing Harris to utilize a wide range of accents and personalities. Every cheesy persona he used as Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother feels like training for this role (these roles?), which includes dressing up as a research assistant, a peg-legged sailor and a shapely secretary.
It's not only Harris' acting that should be praised, though. Patrick Warburton is stellar as Lemony Snicket. Warburton nails being simultaneously humorous and melancholy — a signature trait that made the books so popular with readers. He's saying ridiculous things, but he seems genuinely sad about it.
Great guest stars also pop in (usually only for the two episodes of their respective books), such as Joan Cusack as Justice Strauss, Aasif Mandvi as Uncle Monty and Alfre Woodard as Aunt Josephine. Catherine O'Hara, who was in the movie adaptation, returns as Dr. Georgina Orwell.
The TV format gives each storyline plenty of room to breathe — the writers have time to explore events that didn't occur in the original 13 books. Hardcore series fans might like to hear that content from The Unauthorized Autobiography, for example (a companion book to the original series), is included. There's original material too, though, such as an explanation of how Olaf tricked Mr. Poe into giving him the orphans in the first place.
The movie crammed three books in 108 minutes. The Netflix series gives about 90 to each book.
One of the show's greatest strengths is that it allows itself to be weird. The dialogue is purposefully unnatural, with lines that no living person would actually say and character motivations that should never be taken too seriously. The world of A Series of Unfortunate Events has a certain Tim Burton feel to it, mixing gothic fantasy aesthetics with some modern touches. There are also plenty of extremely unlikely instances of deus ex machina, which tend to add to the utter absurdity of the plot.
One fault, though (which was true of the books as well) is that the routine of "Orphans escape Olaf, Olaf disguises himself to trick new adult guardians, Orphans see through disguise immediately, parents don't believe orphans until it's too late" can become a little rote, which could be an issue for some.
While the movie adaptation settled on a rather definitive ending, the Netflix series ends right where the fifth book, The Austere Academy, begins. Hopefully this is a sign that showrunners are already planning for the series to continue, because this solid debut makes the case that it should stick around for a couple more seasons.
(We did notice you throwing shade at newspapers, though, A Series of Unfortunate Events. You're on notice.)
A Series of Unfortunate Events lands on Netflix on Jan. 13.