Angela Clem earned her MSc by Research in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2016, and her BA in History from Macalester College in 2015. Currently based in Overland Park, Kansas, she works in Financial Aid at Johnson County Community College and is also Social Media Coordinator and Online Editor for The Ogilvie.
This review contains spoilers for Season One of the Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as vague spoilers for the original book series of the same name.
Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix), Season One
I’ve been a die-hard fan of Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (ASoUE) since I first read them when I was ten years old. Upon every re-read, I’m drawn in by his morosely humorous narration of the tale of the Baudelaire siblings, three unlucky children who are consistently undervalued, misunderstood, and often mistreated by the adults around them. Perhaps the most notable characteristic of ASoUE is Handler’s wrecking-ball destruction of the fourth wall by writing under the pen name Lemony Snicket and then including Snicket as a character in the series. Ultimately, though, my favorite thing about these books is how they calmly step off the beaten path of children’s fiction: the world is not entirely a good place, people don’t always do the right thing, and intelligence and kindness aren’t necessarily rewarded with fortune and happiness. Over the course of the series, Handler slowly reveals a much more realistic (and according to some, postmodern) world than that which is so often portrayed in books written for children.
In their Netflix adaptation of the first four books, developers Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld manage to uphold Handler’s grim tone, while making a few necessary changes to translate the books into a TV series that is both amusing and clever. The show’s very prominent inclusion of the narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) preserves the source material’s literary nature, as does the fact that each book spans two episodes. A two-episode arc occasionally sacrifices a steady pace for languorous exploration of Handler’s universe, but this is a much more preferable problem than that of the 2004 film adaptation, which crammed three books into 107 minutes. By allowing an ample length of time for each story arc to unfold, Hudis and Sonnenfeld cede the floor to Handler’s idiosyncratic style, which is best enjoyed holistically rather than selectively.
Take Episode One: following Snicket’s touching dedication to a mysterious woman named Beatrice, the first scene takes a claustrophobic, conspiratorial and clever tone as Snicket–illuminated by a dim row of wall sconces and a solitary match–warns viewers against watching this “dreadful, melancholy, and calamitous–a word which here means ‘both dreadful and melancholy’–” show. This echoes the various moments in the books at which Handler advises, “…if you wish to avoid an unpleasant story you had best put this book down.” For me, this is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the ASoUE books, and I was delighted to see it echoed in the Netflix adaptation. It’s worth noting that Snicket’s warning (along with many other lines from this episode) are quoted almost directly from the original text. While I wouldn’t necessarily encourage copying dialogue from the page to the screen ad verbatim, it works surprisingly well here due to the fact that Hudis and Sonnenfeld have allowed Handler’s books to drive their show. It’s a pity, therefore, that later episodes don’t follow suit; I found Episode One to be the strongest because it perfectly showcases Handler’s playful approach to postmodern narrative for a young adult audience, as reflected in Warburton’s deadpan yet lyrical delivery.
The show’s visual appearance is extremely reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. This is no surprise, seeing as how ASoUE production designer Bo Welch lent his talents to both. After Snicket’s initial monologue in the underground tunnel, the camera tilts up through a cross-section of the pavement to follow a wholesome, brightly colored street trolley as it rattles down a tree-lined avenue. Such shots bring to mind the quaint model sets of Thomas & Friends and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood… complete with shiny red fire engine. Conversely, at significant turning points in the Baudelaires’ lives, Welch depicts the children (dressed in pastel or bright colors) as completely isolated amongst a sea of neutral greys and faded browns. Welch’s style is at once wondrously childlike and darkly sardonic—a difficult but necessary balance to strike, as Handler’s books are intended for a young audience, but also deal with themes such as loss, grief, and abuse.
Younger viewers are likely to enjoy Welch’s almost cartoonish style, along with the mischievous main title theme and the precocious young protagonists. Older viewers will appreciate several familiar faces among the cast including Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack), Sir (Don Johnson), and Georgina Orwell (Catherine O’Hara), as well as Warbuton’s Snicket . By nature of the plot, Harris is the most likely to dominate the show, but he doesn’t. He brings his extensive musical theatre experience to the role, providing the lead vocals for both the main title theme and for a comically operatic, off-kilter song introducing Olaf and his theatre troupe in Episode One. For the season-ending song, however, his vocals blend with those of Warburton, K. Todd Freeman as the hapless banker Mr. Poe, and the three Baudelaire children. Thankfully, the actors who play Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith, respectively) hold their own, both in the season’s finale theme and among such a strong cast–a generally uncommon occurrence in screen adaptations of children’s books. Weissman’s and Hynes’ deliveries are occasionally stilted which contradicts their characterization as exceedingly bright children, but the flip side is that one must only look back to the books to see Handler employ equally repressed, buttoned-up, Victorian-style language.
Those among you who have read the books might be frustrated with the liberties taken by Hudis and Sonnenfeld regarding plot pacing. Certain Very Furtive Developments in the plot not introduced until the fifth book are dramatically telescoped for the purpose of enticing a television audience. Klaus’ discovery of the small spyglass in the ashes of his home, for example, kick-starts the darker, more mature plot of V.F.D. and its hidden influences on the children’s lives. This is mirrored through a fantastic minor plot following a mother and father (Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett) in their attempt to return to their children.
Season One ends on a note of resignation–literally–with a delightfully morose tune that drives the season home to its conclusion. Obviously, this was not part of Handler’s books (although I like to think that he would have employed musical numbers if it could have been done). The song’s lyrics echo what Snicket has been urging us from Scene One: that the tale of the Baudelaire orphans is exceedingly miserable. We as viewers have been trained to crave a reliable sinewave of positive and negative occurrences in the narratives we consume, but sometimes “…that’s not how the story goes.”
We leave the Baudelaires at a grim, graveyard-esque boarding school where they will presumably experience even more unfortunate events. However, with the tantalizing promise of this continued misery, Hudis and Sonnenfeld—thanks to their successful translation of Handler’s playfully postmodern style—have us on the edge of our seats, a phrase which here means, “eagerly awaiting Season Two.”