Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1)

An unexplainable, hilarious and wacky delight – but does it have staying power?

Emerging from binge-watching 8 episodes of the new Netflix Original version of A Series of Unfortunate Events is a bit like suddenly realising you are the only person drunk at a party. Just like this rare situation, this series is an entirely immersive and bonkers experience that you cannot possibly explain to those who aren’t experiencing it too.

The gothic world of the Baudelaire orphans is steeped in style and creative flair which feels a bit like if Tim Burton and Wes Anderson became embroiled in a light wrestling match. If this metaphor doesn’t make sense, it is only because ASOUE is so different to anything else you often see on the small screen that it shouldn’t make sense. Visually there is so much to peruse over, with traditionally gothic scenes, ambitious landscapes and quirky elements of steampunk that all accumulate into an overall unsettling but arresting style. In short, it’s kind of pretty to look at, but all a bit messed up and creepy.

Meanwhile, the tone of the show is equally unique. Those who read the book series as a youngster will understand quite how complex translating this tone would have been from book to screen. A children’s tale, drenched in gothic misery, themes of death, murder and even child abuse, approached through the mediums of sarcasm, comedy and language lectures doesn’t seem easy to shoehorn into a genre. And, granted, you may watch episode one and feel absolutely baffled by what it is exactly it is trying to be.

But continued viewing generally helps to ease the viewer in and, before too long, you realise that the core strength of ASOUE is its incredibly sharp wit. The script is filled with the kind of lines that take two minutes for your brain to process before you start laughing and, once you realise how clever these jokes are, it only gets funnier. This comes at the expense of producing any extreme fear or tension, but the books always did this anyway when the narrator would forewarn all readers that someone was going to die or, most often, remind you that there was no happy ending.

Neil Patrick Harris does a fantastic job as Count Olaf, albeit more comedy than genuine villain. His ongoing failed attempts to get his hands on the ‘enormous fortune’ of the Baudelaire’s through the most unethical and long-winded methods, provide endless hilarity. He does, perhaps, too good a job – as listening to his dialogue becomes a highlight of any episode. Unfortunately for the Unfortunate Baudelaire’s of this Unfortunate tale… their performances are somewhat overshadowed. That’s right, I’m dissing the kids. But there is no doubt as to who the central protagonist of this interpretation really is…

And some will perhaps take issue with the fact that Count Olaf is a limelight-hog and drama queen who provides no real threat. However, ASOUE was never about genuine threat and heart-stopping tension, more a gentle, quirky examination of misery. Moreover, the Baudelaire’s comparative genius, surrounded by incompetent and blundering adults, was always a way of empowering the children who read the book series – because despite being contrastingly dull and annoying, the children are always intellectually superior to the adults that surround them. Which means for those parents reading, one of the great joys of this series is it really does appeal to all ages.

It has been hard to pinpoint why this show needs to be watched. Fans of the book series would undoubtedly have been disappointed with the cinematic attempt at an adaptation which saw the first three books crammed into a single feature-length mess. Unlike its cinematic predecessor, this series takes an hour and a half for each book, allowing greater detail in terms of character and plot progression. Perhaps due to author Daniel Handler’s (Pen name Lemony Snicket) work on the series, it also stays incredibly loyal to the books…creepily loyal, even stalker ex-lover loyal, but loyal all the same.

Patrick Warbuton reoccurs as intrusive, monotonal and omnipresent narrator Lemony Snicket to provide the usual spoilers and lectures of language and grammar – just one example of the truly individual style of the show. Often he is dressed in some new lederhosen or iconic outfit, I haven’t really worked out why but I like it. Moreover, the emphasis on syntax and language is a real nudge to the books. Overall, the books and the TV series are like a married couple who keep referencing each other across the dinner party – ‘Snicket did make the main course’ / ‘Netflix shush it wouldn’t taste nearly as good without your cranberry sauce!’

But where these reoccurring tropes, themes and motives come in handy in defining the style of ASOUE and in pleasing fans of the books, the repetitive nature of the episodes is worrying. Whilst it is entertaining with this series, one wonders if it continues in the same vein whether another 9 books (most likely 2-3 seasons at least) will turn from quirky fun into monotonous repetition. We will have to wait and see…

But for now, watch series one (and ignore the wailing opening credits, they’re meant to put you off). It is weird, wonderful, different and distinct – a word here which means…

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