Weekly Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (season 1)

After the Baudelaire children lose their parents in a dreadful fire, they are sent to live with their “closest” living relative, Count Olaf. Their new guardian turns out to be the first of an ongoing series of unfortunate events.

This review will discuss the first season of the Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

I grew up with A Series of Unfortunate Events. I own all 13 books, and I credit their writing style as an early influence on my own. The series is a pretty big part of my childhood, and like many others, I was a bit disappointed by the 2004 movie adaptation.

When producers attempted to make a film from the Lemony Snicket series, they had the vision in mind of creating a new franchise, branching off from the success of the Harry Potter film series. They cast Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, got some cute kids (including actress Emily Browning) to play the Baudelaire orphans, and had a pretty star studded cast overall. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out. The movie did decently at the box office, but internal conflicts and a time crunch made it impossible to spawn any sequels, and fans never heard anything of it again.

One of my biggest issues with the 2004 movie adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events is that they attempted to smash three books into a single movie. This caused a disproportionate amount of screen time for The Bad Beginning (the first novel) compared to The Reptile Room and The Wide Window (the second and third novels). Fans have long said that the book series would be far more suited for television, and it would appear that those desires have finally been fulfilled.

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In 2014, it was announced that Netflix would develop the book series for their streaming service. Unlike the movie adaptation, Netflix kept the books’ author on board as an executive producer for the series. They cast Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, got some cute kids to play the Baudelaire orphans, and signed on some impressive cast members to take on the variety of characters shown.

I was incredibly excited to hear this news. As the release date of Friday, January 13th, 2017, approached, I could barely hide my anticipation. Finally, these books were getting another attempt at being translated from page to screen. I could only hope that this adaptation would do the series justice.

The first season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is eight episodes, covering the first four books (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, and The Miserable Mill). Each book is given two episodes, which works out pretty well, all things considered.

There are many things that I like about this adaptation, and there are also things that I don’t like. I’ll start with the positives.

The production design is absolutely gorgeous. It’s colorful when it fits. It’s dismal when it fits. Sometimes it blends the two very well. The sets really stand out. The house in “The Wide Window” is really neat. I’m just in love with the production design. The music is pretty great too, composed by James Newton Howard. The costume design and make up has its own particular flare. I’m just in love with the overall look of it. Where the movie went with an overall gothic design, this series takes a different route.

Neil Patrick Harris does a great job as Count Olaf. His performance is not as off the wall as Jim Carrey’s 2004 performance of the same character. Harris is able to switch between the goofy antics and the terrifying creep factor really well. In many ways, he really becomes the character. You can, at times, forget that you’re watching Neil Patrick Harris act as Count Olaf, whereas with Carrey’s performance, his own persona was larger than the character. It always felt like you were watching Jim Carrey, not Count Olaf.

There were other performances that I really enjoyed as well. Joan Cusack portrays Justice Strauss in “The Bad Beginning,” and that is a casting decision that I never knew I wanted. I really liked her as Justice Strauss. She was able to fill the role in a believably quirky way. Aasif Mandvi portrays Uncle Monty in “The Reptile Room,” and I thought he did a pretty great job as well. The Netflix series brings back Catherine O’Hara, who played a role in the film adaptation, to play Dr. Georgina Orwell in “The Miserable Mill.” It’s all well and good.

The casting choice that really stuck out to me was Alfre Woodard as Aunt Josephine in “The Wide Window.” I absolutely loved her in the role! She brought a really nice quirky energy to it that I didn’t even think was possible. She was a breath of fresh air in one of the slower parts of the season overall.

Now, talking about this particular chapter of the first season leads me to some of the more negative aspects. In “The Wide Window” specifically, there were some moments where the special effects were so campy that I couldn’t help but laugh, and I don’t mean this in a good way. It was more of a cringe-worthy, eye roll moment. The whole series has these types of moments, but in “The Wide Window” it seems to reach its peak.

On top of that, many of the scenes with Count Olaf seem too long winded. At many points, the scenes seem to bring the momentum down to a standstill. I don’t blame Neil Patrick Harris for this because I really do like his performance. It may just be possible that Count Olaf is a character that works better on the page than on the screen. It could also be possible that producers just prefer to emphasize the goofy aspect to take away from the more creepy aspects of the character.

I’ve seen many people complain about the pacing of the show. There are many points where it’s absolutely dismal, but that is the clear intent. My problem is not with the pacing. My general problem is with the style in editing. As the season progressed, it got better, but in the beginning, it seemed pretty amateur. During the dialogue in “The Bad Beginning,” the editing feels like a tennis match. Back and forth… Back and forth… I was really glad that this improved as the season went on. It was definitely hard to stomach at first.

Overall, my biggest complaint about this adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events is that there is nothing to draw in viewers who haven’t read the books. I went through the season with someone who wasn’t familiar with the story, and after every episode, they felt no connection. They didn’t know what was going on. I can fully understand why. It’s harder to pick up on all of the instances of V.F.D. when the words are being spoken, not read. If I hadn’t read the books beforehand, I probably would have lost interest as well.

The series attempts to bring in some level of mystery by adding characters. There are points where the secret organization is kind of thrust at you with spies in planes, in bar fights, or on secret missions. These characters aren’t present in the books, but they are a valiant attempt by show runners to convey a sense of mystery that isn’t really there otherwise.

If I had to pick one aspect that really saves the series for me, it would be the presentation of Lemony Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton. Rather than an omnipotent character, sitting behind a type writer, the Netflix adaptation puts Snicket right in the action. He walks into frame, unseen by the characters. He is often shown in the background before becoming the focus and delivering his lines. On top of that, Warburton delivers the lines in such a perfectly deadpan way. He really does make the show enjoyable.

In the end, my feelings are quite mixed for Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I feel drawn to it, simply because it was such a big part of my childhood, so I will likely stick around until the entire story has been told in visual form. The story is a good one, so if you can stick with it, I would recommend it. At this current point in time though, if you can’t get into it, I can’t blame you.

As always, check out the trailer below and see what you think!

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