A Series of Unfortunate Events Season 1
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A Series of Unfortunate Events is Netflix's latest original series and the second attempt at adapting the highly popular books. It’s also, in fact, Barry Sonnenfeld’s second (and in this case far more successful) attempt to get the stories on screen, having been the driving force behind the 2004 movie adaptation. Sonnenfeld started as director on that adaptation, along with the books’ author Daniel Handler on script duties. Schedules and studios meant both men moved on and the film passed to other hands but by all accounts amicably, Sonnenfeld remained as a producer and Handler was offered (but declined so as not to take unfair credit) a co-writer screen credit. Jump forward 12 years and the two have teamed up again, this time under the more freedom-allowing eye of Netflix.
I won't dwell too much on the film version of this story, except to say I enjoyed that film a great deal, it's performances (Carrey especially) it's look, feel, approach to the materials and the quality of the adaptation. This new Netflix adaptation I like even more.
With Handler writing all but a couple of the episodes and Sonnenfeld producing, as well as directing on two of the 4 stories, you really get the feeling this is the vision they had envisioned all along. If the film version had their thumb print on it, this version has a handprint... And a couple of DNA samples and dental records for good measure.
The story concerns the Baudelaire children, orphaned after a mysterious fire destroys their home and kills their parents. Thanks to the overly literal interpretation of their parents will by well meaning but idiotic banker Mr Poe, the children are sent to live with their (geographically) closest living relative, Count Olaf – a failed actor and vicious villain who simply wants to get his hand of the enormous fortune left the children in their parents will – I don’t want to breakdown too much of what happens each episode because, really, you should watch this show!
The narrative is introduced, monitored and narrated by Lemony Snicket, played to perfection by Patrick Warburton, like a kind of melancholy Rod Sterling figure. Warburton brings a wonderful level of deadpan observation, always tinged with a genuine feeling or deep empathy for the children and their struggles. The way he is integrated into the programme is great, with his character interacting with the space unseen by the other characters. Across the various stories we also get drip fed little snippets of Snicket’s own story and past and you can start to piece together how he may be somehow involved in the Baudelaire’s parents lives.
The children are all very strong actors. Malina Weissman (who at times looks eerily like Emily Browning did in the film version) and Louis Hynes (himself looking like a tiny little Woody Allen most of the time) bring a cool if melancholy determination to their roles. Their likability and smooth touch on their line delivery helps elevate the humour in the language and situations. Presley Smith as Sunny Baudelaire is a charmingly expressive baby and while her performance is often helped with a little bit of digital tweaking, the expressions and reactions are all her own – and cute as anything!
Neil Patrick Harris is, of course, superb. His Olaf is pompous, conniving and remarkably unlikable. There is no sense of lovable rogue or bumbling crook about him. He's a cruel idiot and what success he has in his plans to steal the Baudelaire fortune is more down to the fact all other adults are idiots. And of course, no one listens to children. You never feel like NPH is showboating or making it “The Neil Patrick Harris Show’, it’s a controlled, darkly funny performance in keeping with something from an Ealing Comedy. Toward the end of the first episode, Olaf hits Klaus across the face which comes slightly unexpectedly and was exactly the right reminder that Olaf should not be liked. He's not a fun villain, he's someone who repeatedly murders and tortures for his own gain.
In the second part of the first story, Olaf plans to marry 13 year old Violet, while his motivation is wholly to gain the Baudelaire fortune, there is a very creepy element of this old man marrying a little girl. He becomes just a little too tactile when talking with her about marriage, his gross stare lingers on her a little too long and at one point he tells Klaus he will "touch whatever he wants" as he firmly and deliberately grasps Violets shoulder. This Count Olaf is a vile, nasty, unlikable man.
The show looks beautiful. I've always been a fan of Barry Sonnenfeld the film maker as well as many of the film's he was DOP on. This whole production oozes with charm and style from the beginning, every frame is so beautifully constructed and shot. At times it felt like I was watching Wes Anderson for Kids... Though that would be unfair to Sonnenfeld, as this is very clearly HIS project (Also, it's not inherently a kids show.).
The series as a whole is made up of the first four books in the thirteen book series split across 8 episodes, two per book – the second series will be 10 episodes tackling five books and the third series again 8 for the last four books – this structure works very well, basically giving you 90minutes total per story. This whole show is just 4 90minute movies. I’ve rarely seen a TV show that feels so like a film as this. We often talk about programmes like Westworld or Game of Thrones as being cinematic but those shows never really feel like movies, they may be big in scope, have high profile casts and a glossy look but so often it’s the handling, the shot choice and set ups which can be so restricted by time, that keep them looking like TV shows. This, on the other hand, really just looks like a film. The creative talents behind this project made some of the most visually stunning and entertaining movies of the last 20 years; when Barry Sonnenfeld isn’t directing, Bo Welsh takes over for a story. Welsh serves as production designer on the show, a role he had on Sonnenfelds films, as well as Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, Ghostbusters II, Beetlejuice, Thor, The Lost Boys… the list goes on. Mark Palansky is the other director on board, taking the reigns of the second story. Palansky worked up as a second unit drector on Michael Bay movies and a few shorts before helming the quirky, if not perfect, fairytale Penelope.
Each episode opens with the Neil Patrick Harris sung theme tune, the main verse of which is tweaked each episode to reflect what is in store for the Baudelaire children. A great touch was Count Olaf in the first episode introducing himself to the children (having already met them) with a carefully rehearsed song and dance routine. I was wondering if NPH would be singing in every episode but was both disappointed and relived that it would be just that one special occasion… well, apart from the finale episode. Each new story sees the Baudelaires housed with a new Guardian, a series of wonderfully realised performances from the likes of Alfre Woodard, Aasif Mandvi and Rhys Darby. The guest cast throughout is quirky and fun, especially the mysterious parents played by Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett who spend the wholes series attempting to get back to their children. This provides one of the best mysteries as well as being an interesting twist on what comes from the books. The use of language throughout reflects the way the narrative is told in the books and creates lovely little episode specific verbal running gags, oddly reminiscent of Archer.
In the first story the children are sent to live with Count Olaf, this is where we meet him and his troop of actors/henchpeople. The second story involves the children living with their lovely Uncle Monty, the third with their previously formidable but now quite timid Aunt Josephine and the fourth, they run away and get taken in my a shady mill owner. Pretty much everyone close to the children gets murdered by Olaf, a fact that is never hidden or offered up as a surprise or a twist. Lemony Snicket, in his relaying of the story to us the audience, often references the fact that we are meeting a character who will soon die in a horrible and tragic way.
The music is also beautiful, both quirky and at times sadly haunting, with composing duties split across James Newton, Chris Bacon and Sven Faulconer.
I loved everything about this series, the middle two stories The Reptile Room and The Wide Window are probably the better episodes but only by a very slim margin and in part only because they don’t have to worry about setting up or wrapping up. Its gorgeously designed throughout, perfectly paced with the humour, darkness and tone balanced skillfully. Add some great performances and very witty writing and this has shaped up to be one of my favourite TV shows for a while. One of the very few criticism I would have for the show was the amount of digital manipulation of Sunny. There are moments where Sunny has had her head swapped out! All the expressions and reactions are Presley Smith’s but there are times when, I assume, she was looking in the wrong direction or giggling on set etc, so a new reaction shot has been filmed and spliced in. The FX are solid and it’s never really distracting but you do start to notice it as the episodes progress and I suspect with the time restraints they found this options easier to fall back on then endless retakes.
I really can’t wait for the next series of this show, it was witty, dark, sad and joyful wrapped up in some of the most visually creative filmmaking I’ve seen for a while. This is the kind of project Netflix is so well suited to, allowing artists the breathing space to send time, care and love on something in order to produce something just a little bit special.