A Series of Unfortunate Events

3 out of 5

Developed by: Mark Hudis, Barry Sonnenfeld

covers season 1

Lissen up, champs: I was there from the start.  O… Okay, not quite the start; I can’t remember which Series book I started with, but Handler’s gothic design sensibilities (along with the fun that could be gleaned from just glancing at the insides) were the perfect kind of eye-catching for me at the time, so I bought the books up to that point and never looked back.  The series has survived several rereads since.

I wasn’t aware of Harry Potter at the time.  Maybe there’s an alternate version of the world where I became an HP fan instead, but that series never quite had the same appeal, even when I was finally egged into reading it and enjoyed it.  To me, those books do not stand up to rereads; whether it’s my ‘I read it first’ bias or not, the Snicket series reads infinitely more intelligently, respectful of its audience, and intricate.

I would tout the books to everyone, working on different caveats to make it more appealing – mainly that the first few books are purposefully pretty basic – but, as I’m sure Snicket fans have often suffered (womp), it’s often to no avail to those already tuned in to a different series (e.g. Potter).

Still, it’s not like the books needed my push; I’m pretty sure they were plenty popular and the success of the HP movies made a movie announcement somewhat inevitable.  Carrey’s casting as Olaf was a mixed bag, but Sonnenfeld – with memories of Addams Family in my head – was a great choice as director (although behind the scenes scuffles changed that, director Brad Silbering carried through).

Alas, while they got a lot right, they got a lot wrong, and combining three books into a 90 minute movie didn’t result in something that I think encouraged people to go check out the books any more than my pleading did.  Meanwhile the series trudged on and became more and more the embodiment of genius.

This back story, as usual, is poor reviewing and unimportant, but I do bring it up for something of a reason: The release of the first movie was before we were really getting into the cinematic-universe book-to-film world that occurred post Marvel and Hunger Games / Potter sequel madness; when I read the books I wasn’t really thinking “what would this movie be like?” which, for better or worse, I think we’re apt to do with these kinds of serialized things lately.  The books have illustrations – and a particular ‘style’ – and that was certainly the influence for the oddball look of the film, but it was still off.  I don’t know what would be on.  And that’s my main point: For as much time as I’ve spent with the books, I have no idea what they should look like in the real world.  Which isn’t Handler’s fault; I think the series has this nice, goofy, other-wordly tone to it that’s perfect in book form.  But the wordplay, and constant 4th-wall breaking, and cartoonish villains and inventions lose some of their charm when actualized, even when done so by creator Daniel Handler, who teleplayed the new Netflix adaptation, the first season of which covers the first four books.

That’s certainly one major boon: At least two hours (two episodes) per book is a great way to pace things.  But this second attempt at the material (with Sonnenfeld actually producing and directing some episodes) I’d say shares my problem: It’s not really sure what this should look like.  Cues are taken from the movie (the dreary environment, although with less steampunk), and some newer variations are brought in – Patrick Warburton as narrator Snicket talks directly to the viewer, just like the book narrator, but he’s now also a “host” and a constant visual presence, walking through scenes – but everything is still so, so off.  Almost uncomfortably so.  Like the series is trying so hard to get that weird tone down that it forgets to work to its television medium and instead comes across like an early draft of a stage play.

Some of this is tone imbalance, trying to maintain the book’s playfulness while still appealing to kids – i.e. this is about dead parents and, like, child abuse that the book can toy with with language to walk the thin line between tragedy and comedy, while filming it requires a lot of pantomime and over-acting to achieve the same.  There’s also the learning curve.  This is, in a way, that caveat I mentioned, that the first few books read like kids’ books, and then get more mature thereafter.  Favorably, we could say the show does the same, starting out more clearly on the zany side before firming things up to be more squarely dark-humored; more realistically, I think it’s everyone (writers included) getting used to the timing and nature of the material as things go along.  Either way, it’s a rough start: The first half of the season hinges on grin-and-bear-it at points.

The other part may just be trying to do too much.  The book uses a lot of repeated techniques that find a proxy on screen, and I’m not sure they’re all put to the best use.  The most contentious one is that narrator.  Snicker does butt into the story in text form, but it’s also clear he’s narrating from some future time and other place – telling us the Baudelaire story as a historian.  He holds bo sway over events, and there’s the added thrill of his exact involvement being a mystery.  By setting Warburton in the actual the scenes, I don’t feel this separation is initially clear, and it provides a sense of safety to things.  This, I’ll allow, might be purposeful, as he starts to pull back in the back half of the season and one of the other style changes that disrupts things – cutaways to parents Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders – takes a great turn later on which will give book readers a thrill.

This pattern is apparent elsewhere.  The settings become more interesting (more fleshed out), the guardians – each adult the children are hustled to and from – a tad less annoying, and each problem to overcome a bit more complex.  All of this could be said to stem from the books, but with the richer material, our actors become more natural, the writing flows a heck of a lot better, and the directors seem more comfortable in the over-real world.

Speaking of the actors, much like all of the above, it’s quite a mixed bag.  Most importantly the children are right (at least the two with speaking roles – casting of Sunny is whatever, and I’m not sure how I felt the show’s handling of her babble and teething); they handled their wordy dialogue well and brought the right levels of maturity to their roles.  I was also pleased with how close, physically, they matched the casting on the movie, as they did right by the kids then, too.  And also (ahem) most importantly, after the few find-your-footing episodes, Neil Patrick Harris is great as Count Olaf, a bit more on the menacing side than Carrey’s silver screen edition.  The rest of the cast…  Warburton is fine – your feelings on him will depend on how you feel about the narrator’s implementation – but the guardians and Mr. Poe?  Whoosh.  Until Don Johnson shows up in the last two episodes, I wasn’t too keen on spending time with most of those characters.  The performances just didn’t sync up with the style or timing effectively, which unfortunately hindered many a’joke.

More growing pains?  Hopefully.  We’ve already got a season 2 to confirm.  The bottom line is that A Series of Unfortunate Events has the right idea to try to maintain the uniqueness of its source material, but it seems we’re still hard pressed to figure out how to best translate that to the screen, again giving us an imperfect representation.  Things do start to straighten out toward the end of the season, providing hope that what’s to come will only be an improvement.

Enjoyable, quirky, but uneven.