A Series Of Unfortunate Events (Season 1) – Review

Netflix’ take on Lemony Snicket is equal parts whimsical & bleak with plenty of promise for future seasons.

Showrunner: Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes
Release Date: 13th January, 2017
Network: Netflix

“If you’re interested in stories with happy endings… that story is streaming elsewhere.”

What a peculiar tale of woe and intrigue. Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events: the show that actively discourages viewers from watching it. In the end, the incessant forewarnings only make it all the more enticing – a word  which here means “impossible not to keep binging” – not unlike the beloved series of children’s novels it was adapted from.

We’ve been down this live-action-adaptation-centric road before, to mixed results. Fortunately, the ever-impressive Netflix and showrunner Barry Sonnenfeld appear to have a better grasp of Daniel Handler’s slippery source material than the bigwigs in Hollywood did. The sets are admittedly less imposing, and the production value appears to have halved, but everything is also a lot less ‘in-your-face’. And Jim Carrey’s dinosaur/ostrich impression is nowhere to be found. It seems the terrible tale of Violet, Klaus & Sunny Baudelaire has finally been done justice to on the big screen. Almost, anyway.

Tonally, it’s still a bit of a mess. Marrying a story full of so much sorrow with an undercurrent of whimsical humour was never going to be easy – and this task was made twice as difficult by its young target audience (a demographic Netflix has very little experience with thus far). Bouncing between slapstick tomfoolery and heartbreaking twists lends the show an overtly surreal edge that gradually becomes more jarring than amusing over the course of eight episodes. Handler’s novels played with similarly bleak themes and black comedy, but it all felt so much more subtle on the page than the screen.

The series bears a fascinating visual style. It attempts to blend Tim Burton’s gothic iconography with the quirky flair of a Wes Anderson production – but falls just shy of succeeding at either. Bernard Couture’s cinematography reflects Robert D. Yeoman’s highly symmetrical work on Anderson’s films, but lacks his dynamism – making the visual narrative flow a little sluggish. Bo Welch’s gorgeous production design lends the story a timeless, nostalgic charm – which is then frequently undermined by the not-so-subtle use of green-screen to splice-in Lemony Snicket’s narration between scenes.

It’s a shame Netflix couldn’t cough up a little more cash for this particular venture. Welch & co. appear to be very close to creating something iconic here. Perhaps a more practical effects-driven approach would have been more fitting (a la Henry Selick’s memorable contribution to Anderson’s A Life Aquatic).

The eight-episode narrative format works nicely. Where the film steamrolled through the first three books in under 110 minutes, the series wisely devotes an hour and a half to each story. The Bad Beginning remains mostly intact, but once the introductions are made, the writers are able to expand a little on the following novels. They flesh out key supporting characters – and introduce a couple of unexpected new ones – all of whom imbue the series’ larger mythos with a little more mystery and depth.

Neil Patrick Harris’ Count Olaf is a marked improvement on Carrey’s. He’s a little hit-and-miss at times, and still not nearly as sinister as his literary counterpart, but the core principles of the character mostly remain intact. NPH actually delivers his best work as Olaf’s delightfully hammy costumed alter-egos like Stefano, Shirley and (my fave) Yessica Haircut – roles that demand a little more of his trademark theatricality. He will need to add a little menace to future turns to truly capture Olaf’s black heart.

For a story that revolves around the Baudelaires, the three children don’t leave much of an impression here. The young Malina Weissman & Louis Hynes deliver a pair of serviceable performances (while a baby Presley Smith quite literally chews up the scenery as Sunny), but they aren’t given enough to work with overall. Inevitably, they’re mostly overshadowed by a delightfully diverse supporting cast of dastardly villains, failed parental figures and enigmatic guest stars. Their role will hopefully expand as the show moves on to some of the meatier sub-plots in Handler’s later novels.

Book readers will delight in finding a Variety of Familiar and Devious easter eggs peppered throughout this tale, while newcomers are offered an intriguing little mystery to wrap their heads around. At times you’ll want to write it off, but each seemingly obvious sub-plot has a twist up its sleeve. And though the series ends on a bittersweet note – only really finding its groove in its final two episodes – it’ll leave you salivating over the prospect of future adventures. I can’t wait to dive into Season 2.

3 Stars

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