Recurring Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith, K. Todd Freeman and Patrick Warburton
Netflix has a flair for approaching tired genres from an innovative and inventive point of view. Their superhero stories are character-driven dramas rather than blockbuster spectacles and their comedies are female-driven ensembles which deliver tears as much as they do giggles. Here, they tackle the children’ show, adapting the novels of Lemony Snicket, a series of books which chart the painfully cruel series of unfortunate events which occurred when the three lead children, the Baudelaires, are orphaned and put into the care of the dastardly Count Olaf. Some might question how one can be so inventive and original with source material, but as show developers, Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld prove, perhaps that is the only way to adapt an already established story, especially one as wacky and absurd as Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Right from the off-set, you know you are onto something good. A washed out colour scheme, a gloriously 4K HD camera and a backdrop artistically green-screened: at times, certain cinematography suggests that we are going to be watching Sin City for kids. But it’s not just the visuals that suggest something we haven’t seen before. The story-telling, as ever with Netflix, comes first and foremost. We are introduced to Patrick Warburton’s Lemony Snicket, who narrates the story, while constantly telling us to turn off our television and go watch something more cheerful. His monotone delivery is surprisingly effective, especially as the story zooms out and suggests he is more than an innocent bystander. Despite never raising his voice beyond his despairing, soft tone, Warburton almost leaves the series as the best character, consistently amusing from start to finish. He tells us the story of the three bright, young orphans, portrayed amazingly well by Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes (the third is a baby).Weissman is a brilliant inventor, able to Macgyver her way out of most situations. Hynes has knowledge of most things in the world, due to his extensive reading history. Their smarts set them apart from the adults in the show, who are all portrayed as useless morons, from a spineless business partner at a lumber mill to a thick-headed banker, who cheerfully assumes he knows what is best for their future. A Series of Unfortunate Events takes the three of them from bad situation to worse, as Netflix takes us through the first four books in the series. Split into eight episodes, two episodes dedicated to each book, the story masterfully takes us from set-piece to set-piece, cleverly avoiding the common pitfall of getting too repetitive, easy to do given the whole point of the show relies on a rhythm and formula. That is all down to the writing, which cleverly knows which jokes to bring up, what works and what perhaps doesn’t quite as much. It delightfully focuses on grammar and vocabulary as one of its lead jokes, with characters who are quite particular on their choice of words, even when put in dire situations. Anyone who gets wound up with the misuse of the words ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’ will love to pieces the kids calling out the villains on their poor choice of words. The whole affair is an odd pill to swallow, but each performance is gloriously over-the-top, each joke so bizarrely out of place, that, when you get on board with what the show is trying to do, there is a solid slice of entertainment waiting for you.
Of course, it is Neil Patrick Harris’s material right down to the ground. It is possible that the show is never really on full power until the great NPH is on-screen, at least during the first half of the season. He fits the material like a glove, right from the first moment, he saunters onto the screen as the dreadful Count Olaf. Prosthetic nose, wolfish goatee and evil mono-brow, Olaf is a figure to behold right from the off. Neil Patrick Harris has always revelled at playing the oddest and most energetic of characters, so the evil villain character comes to him like a second skin. There are moments which suggest the actor has just been dropped into the middle of a scene and allowed to have full reign of his performance. It is the tiny grimaces, the curling of a smile at the foulest of things that happens to the poor children or sometimes just the line delivery. Watching him is just a joy. Neil Patrick Harris has the time of his life too, providing the grand musical numbers the show pulls out from time to time (clearly, grand musical numbers must be hidden somewhere in Neil Patrick Harris’s contract), including the opening credits sequence which has shifting lyrics depending on where the Baudelaires are in that certain episode. While How I Met Your Mother still boasts his most memorable character, it must be nice for the actor to break away from the character of Barney Stinston (a feat he pulled twice, if you include his child career as Doogie Howser). He fuels the energy of the show and when it rocks to its close, open enough to grant a second season (there are still nine more books to go, after all), we are left hungry for more.
Final Verdict: A Series of Unfortunate Events is brilliant, a word, which here, means great, extraordinary, outstanding…