Netflix frequently demonstrates an ability to produce watchable and largely enjoyable content, and it has moved to the forefront of original content in recent years. So when it announced that it would be adapting “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (1999–2006), the novel series published by Daniel Handler under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, there was reason to celebrate — but also reason to fear, given the terrible film adaptation “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” (2004). However, even if it is not a tale of happy endings, the Netflix adaptation proves to be a success by closely following the spirit of the books, leaving viewers satisfied with its dissatisfaction.
A major problem with the 2004 movie was its lack of dark comedy, a part of what made the books so great. The movie tried too hard to be funny and ultimately lost most of the charm the books contained. Thankfully, Netflix has remedied this problem, and the show is both grotesque and enjoyable in its self-aware mockery. Indeed, the theme song that plays during the opening credits includes the lyrics, “This show will wreck your evening, your whole life and your day. Every single episode is nothing but dismay.” An opening monologue by Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) himself directly tells viewers, “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, then you would be better off somewhere else … This story will be dreadful, melancholy and calamitous, a word which here means dreadful and melancholy,” immediately capturing the grim charm of the book series.
This continues throughout the pilot episode, titled “The Bad Beginning: Part One,” which begins to tell the story of the Baudelaire children: Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith). The plot begins as the three children are informed by banker Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) that their parents have perished in a terrible and sudden fire, leaving them orphans. While their parents left behind an enormous fortune, the children do not have access to it until Violet comes of age, and they must be placed in the care of their nearest living relative until then. After a brief and unwelcoming stay at Mr. Poe’s house, they find themselves under the care of distant relative Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), and in spite of the kind neighbor Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack), the Baudelaires must deal with Count Olaf’s incompetence and obvious ulterior motives, while Snicket, as narrator, consistently makes asides hinting at the orphans’ tragic fate.
The show is filled with the aforementioned dark comedy, and it is hard not to laugh out loud at times, only to be hit with depressing reality a moment later. Whether the orphans are forced to watch Count Olaf’s hilariously bad acting troupe or deal with the equally incompetent Mr. Poe, their misfortune is so over-the-top that it balances quite well with the macabre humor sprinkled throughout bits of dialogue or in the plot itself. A personal favorite is hearing the adults in the show frequently explain different words to the children, only to have Klaus contemptuously explain that they know what it means. In all, the story and comedy are handled very well, closely modeling the books and also breathing new life into familiar characters in a way the 2004 movie utterly failed to do.
Alas, just as Snicket professes that the story is not a happy one, all is not well in this review either. The show takes few risks, resulting in a good show — but not a great one. And while the bad acting of Count Olaf and co. is intentional, the acting of other characters can be a bit stale at times. Coupled with effects that seem a bit outdated, the visual and auditory experience suffers as a whole. Nonetheless, Netflix has managed to provide a show anyone with a taste for wry humor will thoroughly enjoy… unless, of course, you are fond of happy endings.