Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season One
By Ethan McIntyre
Growing up, I read a lot. One of the series that I was particularly fond of was A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket (actually by Daniel Handler, writing under a pseudonym).
A Series of Unfortunate Events is the bleak tale of the three Baudelaire orphans, whose parents have recently perished in a fire. The trio of children are placed into the care of the villainous Count Olaf, a despicable man who is constantly scheming to get the children’s enormous fortune (which the oldest child, Violet, will receive on her 18th birthday).
What seemed a simple premise gradually expanded into a sinister mystery revolving around a massive, secret organization bearing the initials VFD. Nearly every character (and the author himself) is revealed to have ties to VFD, and the later books in particular see the Baudelaires trying to uncover the group’s secrets.
While the series was uncompromisingly dark (particularly for children’s literature), and it notoriously ended without revealing the answers to many of the books’ central questions, I always enjoyed it. It was for children, yes, but it didn’t condescend to them; Handler’s writing is witty and acerbic, and he’d prefer to define a complex word in the text rather than avoid its use. In addition, the lack of resolution to the Baudelaires’ story - while (intentionally) frustrating - reinforced the overall theme of the narrative, and allowed readers to draw their own conclusions.
Now, the books are being adapted as a Netflix original series. The first season was recently released (on Friday, Jan. 13, fittingly) and covers the first four books: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, and The Miserable Mill. Each book is broken into two episodes, for a total of eight episodes in the first season.
Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith star as the three Baudelaire orphans: the inventive Violet, bookish Klaus, and infant Sunny. The role of series antagonist Count Olaf is played by Neil Patrick Harris, while the supporting cast includes Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket himself and K. Todd Freeman as bumbling banker Mr. Poe.
The three children are cast perfectly. I’m especially fond of Hynes’s portrayal of Klaus - he’s excellent at the exasperation, incredulity, and weariness the character often expresses at the miserable ordeals the trio must go through. That said, Weissman’s Violet is fantastic as well.
The real standout, of course, is Harris’s Count Olaf. I’ve always been a fan of Harris as an actor, and he steals every scene he’s in as Olaf (which is quite a few, given that he’s the main villain). Sinister, foolish, arrogant, hilarious, threatening - Harris pulls it all off with aplomb.
The sole casting choice that I question is that of Warburton as Snicket. Don’t get me wrong, I think Patrick Warburton is a terrific actor - watch a single episode of The Venture Bros. and you’ll see that he has amazing comedy chops. I’m just not sure he was the right choice for Snicket. He plays it well, I admit - dour, depressed, and somber, just as the narrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events should be. My aversion isn’t so much the performance, which I have no issue with - it’s more the physicality of Warburton himself that throws me. I always envisioned him as a gaunt man, with a higher voice than Warburton’s deep one. I suppose that’s my own projection, though, and as I said, he performs it admirably, so there’s really not much to complain about.
Plot-wise, the series adheres to the books quite well (certainly better than the mid-2000s film version). There are some notable deviations, however. The main difference is that the VFD mystery is introduced significantly earlier. In the books, there were a few small hints at a larger conspiracy early on, but the puzzle didn’t start to come together until the fifth book. This was largely because Handler didn’t secure the 13-book contract he wanted until after book four, and he didn’t want to get the ball rolling until he was certain he could tell the whole story.
The Netflix series, however, doesn’t have those concerns, and so the VFD plot is alluded to much earlier on. While those initials specifically are not addressed within the first season, the group itself has been examined a bit, and their symbol - that of an eye - has seen lots of screentime.
Personally, I think these changes are great. They help tie in the rather episodic early books to the larger mythos of the later ones. It may even result in long-time fans getting answers that the books never provided.
With a perfect cast, an engaging mystery, and a rare talent for dark comedy, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a must-watch.