When Netflix announced they would be having a go at adapting Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, fans of the original books held their collective breath. The previous adaptation, which starred rubber faced funny man Jim Carrey, was lackluster at best. Sure, Carrey was great in the role of the dastardly Count Olaf, but many of the other key characters are also given very little time to develop, given the confines of the films duration. The film also suffers because of its episodic approach, which just didn’t translate well to the big screen.
It made sense then that Netflix, who have really been hitting the ball out of the park with their original content of late, would adapt the books into a television series, allowing for each book to be given time to breathe on screen, and for all the key components to be given their due.
When the first trailer for A Series of Unfortunate Events hit, it was clear this was going to be something special. Patrick Warburton, who so often hams it up in comedic roles, somberly informed us that we should avoid the series altogether. Watching it, he tells us, will only bring us sorrow; “I would advise all our viewers to watch something more pleasant instead”.
Alongside Warburton’s titular Lemony Snicket is Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, a failed actor with designs on getting his hands on the fortune of the recently orphaned Baudelaire children (Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes). They are joined by an outstanding support cast, including K. Todd Freeman (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as the bumbling banker Mr Poe, Joan Cusack (Shameless), Don Johnson (Miami Vice), Usman Ally (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Will Arnett (Arrested Development) and Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) as the Baudelaire’s not-as-dead-as-we-first-thought parents.
The story picks up with book one, and the sudden apparent death of Mother and Father Baudelaire. With no one to look after them, the children (who are also joined by Presley Smith, the least annoying baby in the history of TV) are sent to live with their “closest living relative”, a sinister old wretch named Olaf who has somehow orchestrated the whole affair to enable him to get his hands on the fortune the children are set to inherit. Over the course of eight episodes, or four books if you will, we follow the children – Klaus and Violet – from one misfortune to another as they desperately try to evade the clutches of Olaf and his entourage of struggling actors and lackeys.
For a show that centers on children, it is neither sickly nor sweet. The series is as dark and melancholic as one would hope for, considering the source material. Where Carrey’s Olaf was played solely for laughs, here he is mean, dangerous and unrelenting. Sure, you can’t help but scoff at him as he comes up with all manner of disguises, but there’s always an underlying terror that if he were left to his own devices he could do some serious harm to the children, and not think twice about it.
The supporting cast all shine too. Whether it’s Cusack as the sad sack Judge who lives across the street, or Aasif Mandvi as the colourful snake charmer, Uncle Monty, every character gets their moment in the spotlight. A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of those rare TV shows where there really isn’t a weak link, and you’re never left waiting for your favourite character to come back on screen because everyone involved is so damn good.
The only bugbear here, if you can call it that, is the series came and went in a flash. Netflix decided to unleash the whole show as one short season, which meant it was great for binge watching but after 8 episodes we were left wanting more, with so many unanswered questions – perhaps the cruelest moment of the entire series, which is really saying something considering how cruel Olaf is.
The theme tune may continually encourage us to “look away”, but there’s no chance of that here. A Series of Unfortunate Events is fortunately an unmissable series.