Don’t look away: ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ is a darkly comic treat

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

Adaptations of beloved books are tricky things. Expectations are high and the potential for disappointment is even higher. For better or worse, we are living in the age of adaptations. Comic books, graphic novels, novels, video games, board games — if enough people have nostalgic warm fuzzies for a property, Hollywood will likely adapt it. And if at first they don’t succeed, they will do it again and again until they get it right.

“Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” is one such property. The popular series of young adult books written by Daniel Handler was first brought to the big screen in 2004 as a big-budget Jim Carrey vehicle. However, hopes for a franchise were dashed after critics and audiences responded with a collective “meh.”

But many believed the series deserved better. Enter Barry Sonnenfeld, who has brought the tragic story of the Baudelaire children to Netflix in a new eight-episode series. Sonnenfeld’s past work, which has included “The Addams Family” and “Men in Black,” makes him an ideal fit for the series. He possesses the kind of cartoonishly spooky sensibilities that make the show’s dark foreboding world come alive, as it simultaneously leavens the dire proceedings with a clever, comedic tone.

For anyone unfamiliar with the books (as I was), here’s a quick primer. The Baudelaires are a trio of siblings who find themselves orphaned after their parents are apparently killed in a mysterious fire. Left in the care of a cadre of mostly kind but often inept adults, the children must protect themselves and their family’s fortune from the machinations of the evil Count Olaf.

Neil Patrick Harris stars are the sinister Olaf, a failed actor and all-around bad guy of the Dick Dastardly variety. Harris is terrific, as he twirls his figurative mustache and conceives of new ways to torment the Baudelaires. The role, which involves various disguises, accents and madcap schemes, gives Harris a lot of room to play, which he does with gusto. (Harris also sings the opening credits theme song, which changes every episode to bring viewers up to speed on the story.)

Patrick Warburton lends his deep baritone to the role of narrator Lemony Snicket. He appears onscreen throughout episodes Rod Sterling-style to add details, provide context and explain literary concepts and big words younger viewers might not yet grasp. Snicket is anything but a detached narrator. He is a part of this story, though how is not immediately clear. A narrator is often regarded as a clunky or lazy expository tool, but that’s not the case here — it works to expand on the story and add more mystery, rather than explain it.

The Baudelaires are played by a trio of talented young actors. Malina Weissman plays the big sister Violet, an inventor. Louis Hynes is Klaus, a voracious reader with a natural curiosity. Presley Smith is Sunny, the baby with razor sharp teeth and a wry wit — though she doesn’t speak, her sly observations are delivered via subtitle. The precocious children are reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family or the Tennenbaum siblings from “The Royal Tennenbaums” — brilliant, troubled and bound by tragedy.

The cast is rounded out by an inspired selection of recognizable actors. Joan Cusack, K. Todd Freeman, Alfrie Woodard, Asif Mandvi, Catherine O’Hara, Will Arnett, Colby Smulders and more have great turns as the various adults who attempt to care for the Baudelaires. While their intentions may be noble, most of these characters are depicted as far less clever and observant than the children — a consistent theme throughout.

The Netflix iteration of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” succeeds where the film adaptation failed because the long-form televisual format allows these stories to be told in greater detail. Each book unfolds over the course of two episodes. The first season comprises the first four books of the series; the remaining nine will be told over another two seasons.

Given that space, Sonnenfeld and company are free to build out this gorgeous, quirky, anachronistic universe with great care and specificity. And do they — the show has a vibrant, curated aesthetic that calls to mind Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, without feeling derivative or borrowed.

As Snicket tells us along the way, be warned: though the source material is young adult, this show isn’t strictly kid stuff. In fact, parents should decide for themselves if this is appropriate family viewing, as some elements of the show may be a bit dark for younger viewers — people die regularly and a scene of physical violence early on, while effecting, is also genuinely shocking. For the rest of us, however, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is absolutely worth checking out if you’re a fan of dark comedies and well-paced serial storytelling.

CHECK IT OUT

“Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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