On this momentous first edition of “He Says, She Says”–which is, in short, our way of doing a joint reflection on the things we watch, we will be discussing Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which premiered (quite fittingly) on Friday 13th. Though the whole series is available to watch on Netflix now, we have decided to break our discussion down into parts corresponding to the show, starting with “The Bad Beginning,” which encapsulates episodes one and two. These episodes introduce us to the Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, their unique talents for invention, research, and biting respectively, and their habitually tragicomic lives. On top of that, we are also introduced to Count Olaf: the children’s first guardian (of many) after having been orphaned.
Overall I was really impressed with the introductory episodes. As someone who only has vague memories of the Jim Carey movie and no prior knowledge of the series I was very surprised at how well the show balances itself between tragedy and comedy. A Series of Unfortunate Events embraces the horrible and terrifying as mundane. From the way the world is presented to the way characters interact, the whole production approaches the tragedy taking place with a detached sense of humor. It was a surprising choice and more than a little bold considering how dark the material gets at times, and the series doesn’t shy away from any of it. The opening is bold, and the whole production feels as if it revels in the tragedy befalling the Baudelaire children. Yet at the same time it manages to avoid feeling depressing or mean-spirited.
Part of that is owed to how freely it cribs from director Barry Sonnenfield’s previous work on the Addams Family movies (personal favorites of mine). The Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus, and Sunny sit comfortably in that same mix of intelligent but “off” that the Addams children do. The introduction to Count Olaf’s house in particular felt like a callback to those introductory sequences, and the contrast between Olaf’s obviously unsafe, decidedly horrific home and the surrounding neighborhood, which is steeped in the imagery of classical 50s Americana calls attention to and heightens the unreality of the more “unfortunate” set-pieces of this series.
The set design is fantastic. I’m not entirely certain if the series was filmed on a green screen or not, but much of the shot composition is meant to mimic the way films were blocked out in the Golden Age. The houses and yards are carefully manicured, with lots of bright yellows and blues popping throughout the suburbia the children are forced to inhabit. All the backgrounds, even in Count Olaf’s despicable mansion appear fake. It gives the whole from feeling real at times, when the insane tragedies occur. The unreality of the world around them makes the awful things which befell the Baudelaire children during this episode makes it easier to stomach, which will keep the show from getting too hopeless as it continues.
The adults in A Series of Unfortunate Events are dumb. Almost unbelievably dumb. This is contrasted with the unusual Baudelaire children, who are are so much more intelligent than everyone else yet are constantly ignored. Were it not for how exceedingly dumb the adults are, the tragedy would be such that it would render the show depressing to the point of unwatchable. The children’s guardian Count Olaf is an exceptionally bad actor, and manages to take in all the adults in the show with his poorly thought out plans. The children, by contrast, see through his schemes as soon as he shows up, much like the audience. It is perhaps the only solace in this unfortunate tale of woe that the children, when not restrained by societal norms and expectations, are able to outmaneuver their despicable guardian so easily. I look forward to seeing how the continue to escape one tragic happening to another and to see if the show can keep up the pace of tragedy without exhausting the audience.
Netflix has rarely disappointed me. When I first heard A Series of Unfortunate Events had been picked up, I was very hopeful that they would find a way to do it justice. Every piece of marketing I saw leading up to the show’s release only cemented that feeling–from the endorsement of the author “Lemony Snicket” himself, the first glimpses of footage, and learning that the man producing it was the same man who had done The Addams Family, I felt that one of my favorite series as a kid was in capable hands.
One of the best things about the books that has been gloriously translated onto the screen is the books’ use of language. The books are almost Dickensian in nature (if Dickens had had a drier, more bitter sense of humor) with its long sentences and fondness for commas, semicolons, and dashes. This series is faithful to its source text to a degree I have only seen maybe once or twice before, and as a literature buff, it makes me practically giddy to see a show not just pay homage to its source text, but actively try to incorporate it into as many scenes as possible. Utilizing the character of the narrator as heavily as the show does allows for the kind of verbosity that the books had without seeming awkward or out of place.
In the books the bitter, sardonic, morbid, constantly-in-a-state-of-peril narrator is left unnamed. For the purposes of the show, though, the narrator’s name becomes the pseudonym that the author of the books wrote under, Lemony Snicket. The execution of the narrator is much better than I’d ever hoped for–basically pristine. What I was expecting to happen was Patrick Warburton would narrate over some scenes to give context and be witty. Instead, the show has decided to insert Patrick Warburton himself on-screen to narrate. This allows him to occupy two spaces in the narrative, both within and without. In the scenes where he appears with the other characters of the story alongside him, he often gives vital context or foreshadowing. In the scenes he appears alone, he usually occupies spaces we’ve already seen, but at the time of Snicket’s narration, have long been abandoned by the Baudelaires and everyone else, lending those scenes a very solemn quality.
Patrick Warburton’s performance itself is spot-on. He’s able to stone-face the most hilarious or morbid narration of the series with perfect enunciation and inflection. He was, quite honestly, a perfect choice for that character. And I am so glad he is being treated as the character he always was and deserves to be. However, I do hope that we see more scenes of him in the midst of peril. I distinctly remember many scenes from the book that were quite ridiculous for the narrator, and I believe they could bring much-needed levity to the show which is, as it advertises, quite bleak at times.
On the subject of casting choices, I thought Neil Patrick Harris was an interesting choice for Count Olaf. I wasn’t put off by it, but I also wasn’t thinking to myself, “Oh yes. Of course. An obvious choice.” I mean, Neil Patrick Harris is supposed to be attractive first of all. Which, if you have any experience with the series, Count Olaf is definitely not. Not just that, but the only other Count Olaf ever attempted was Jim Carey’s. This is not to say that I think Jim Carey did a bad job portraying Olaf (which might be a controversial opinion in itself, but I stick by it nonetheless. The biggest problems with that movie were not his acting.) That said, I think that Neil Patrick Harris (who henceforth I will type as NPH because I’m lazy) is doing Olaf much, much better.
The reason I say this is because NPH is able to pull back on the eccentricity a bit (which Jim Carey never attempts and thus is the reason so many people just hate his acting style) and deliver a performance that is both comical (as when Count Olaf is in disguise) and sinister–which is exactly what Count Olaf should be. Initially, I thought NPH might be pulling a bit from Carey’s original performance, but upon further reflection, I believe he’s pulling more from previous performances like Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. With the help of the smarter writing this series has, Count Olaf has achieved the blend of ridiculous/ dastardly/ sinister/ intelligent that he was meant to have in the hands of NPH.