Doom, gloom and flexing lexicons abound for the Baudelaire orphans in “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Netflix’s latest original series release. An adaptation of the children’s book series of the same name by the morose Lemony Snicket (real-life Daniel Handler), the show’s dark themes and gothic look set it apart from most other shows aimed at younger audiences while remaining madcap enough not to stumble over its own glum feet.
The eight-episode series follows Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) Baudelaire as they are shuttled between distant relatives and uncomfortable living situations after their parents mysteriously perish in a fire that also claims the family mansion. Though the children are left with the promise of access to the family fortune when Violet, the oldest, turns 18, the rest of their lives are mired in levels of gleeful misery that the series layers on episode after episode.
Each of the children has their own special skill set. Violet has a knack for inventing fantastical contraptions; Klaus is the trio’s resident knowledge sponge and bookworm; and infant Sunny is equipped with incredibly sharp teeth (which proves more useful than it may initially sound). These abilities all prove useful in thwarting attempts on their lives and their fortune, most of them made by a scenery-chewing Neil Patrick Harris as the nefarious Count Olaf, the first in their series of new guardians.
Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is the second attempt to branch the book series out to a live-action adaptation. The first was a 2004 movie of the same name with Jim Carrey playing Olaf, a role that the rubber-faced actor inhabited with exhausting and manic excess. Harris here isn’t too far off in terms of hamminess (while still somehow managing to be far less annoying), but the longer episodic format gives more breath between each of Olaf’s appearances so that the show doesn’t feel completely dominated by one performance.
Harris may steal his scenes, but Patrick Warburton, playing Lemony Snicket, fourth-wall-breaking narrator and self-professed chronicler of the Baudelaire family tragedy, sets the tone for the show. Besuited and dour, he’s quick to remind the viewing audience that any pleasure the children may be experiencing is temporary and pleads with watchers to go do something — anything — more joyful than watch their continued misfortune. It’s a technique taken straight from the books, and Warburton’s drone is the perfect preface for whatever hardship the children might face in a particular episode.
It’s all been very fun for me to watch, but some aspects might be a little out of reach for the younger audience the show targets. For one, the episodes mostly run up to the one-hour mark, which seems a little long for viewers prone to squirming, especially considering most of the show’s packaged narrative arcs span two episodes paired back to back.
And while the grim outlook is part of the appeal, it can turn pretty abruptly into outright violence that breaks beyond the nod-and-wink of the series. Nothing too outlandish or scary, but it’s enough to raise some eyebrows (and maybe some questions to parents from very young watchers). Still, by not shying away from actual misfortune, the series also shows a level of respect for its morose source material and the fanbase it generated.
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