'A Series of Unfortunate Events': TV Review

Joe Lederer/Netflix

Netflix's adaptation of the popular children's book series is a horribly fun time.

Misery usually loves company, so newcomers to the world of Netflix's latest offering, A Series of Unfortunate Events, might be slightly perplexed by the catchy theme song's repeated urge to "Look away! Look away!" But those familiar with Daniel Handler's pessimism-embracing 13-part children's book series, which he penned under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket (also a character in the stories), surely will find those words as warm and welcoming as a beloved, louse-infested blanket.

Handler's work previously was adapted into a large-scale, narratively condensed Jim Carrey vehicle in 2004. Netflix affords Handler and executive producer/director Barry Sonnenfeld the opportunity to take a more leisurely approach to storytelling: Each book takes up two episodes, so this inaugural season of eight installments covers the first four tales ("The Bad Beginning," "The Reptile Room," "The Wide Window" and "The Miserable Mill"). This better allows us to bask in the visually topsy-turvy and verbally dextrous world (where a running gag might revolve around elucidating the differences between "literally" and "figuratively") occupied by the tragedy-prone Baudelaire orphans.

They are teenagers Violet and Klaus (the endearing, excellent Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes), and sharp-toothed infant Sunny (an oft-digitally augmented Presley Smith), who are informed early on by oblivious, perpetually chipper estate handler Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) that their parents have died in a fire. The trio's subsequent travails — shuffled, seemingly forever and always, between ill-omened adult guardians — are narrated in hilariously downbeat, fourth-wall-breaking address by Snicket (a dryly pitch-perfect Patrick Warburton), who does everything he can to convince viewers that this is not the place to turn for cheer and uplift. "That story is streaming elsewhere," he says in one of several meta-acknowledgements of our new binge-watch paradigm, and it's to Handler and his co-writers' credits that such self-conscious jests feel entirely apropos to all the blithe sorrow.

Certainly it helps that Sonnenfeld (who helmed four of the eight installments) seems energized and engaged here in ways that recall his charmingly baroque Addams Family films, as opposed to that recent purported comedy Nine Lives (2016), in which evil businessman Kevin Spacey learned treacly life lessons after being reincarnated in feline form. Meanwhile, ace production designer Bo Welch, who also directed the two-part season finale, has an imaginative, eye-popping field day with the sets — a nice mix of practical and CG elements that bring to life everything from a creaky shack perched perilously atop a cliff to an evil optometrist's office located in an ocular-shaped metal tower. The oddball material also gives the uber-talented guest cast (plum supporting roles are filled by the likes of Catherine O'Hara, Alfre Woodard, Aasif Mandvi, Don Johnson, Rhys Darby and Joan Cusack) the chance to unleash their inner ham. Cusack's Madeline Kahn-channeling flightiness as Baudelaire neighbor Justice Strauss is especially delightful.

None of this takes into account the series' trump (not that Trump!) card. That would be Neil Patrick Harris as the villainous, vile and very, very vain Count Olaf. He's the eternal thorn in the Baudelaires' side, obsessed with laying his hands on the massive fortune willed to the children by their parents (who may or may not appear, perhaps or perhaps not played by a pair of familiar faces — Netflix demands we remain coy). In the first two episodes, the hook-nosed, devil-bearded Olaf (a failed actor by trade) suggests Nosferatu resurrected as a snobbish sociopath who could stand to brush up on his Stanislavski. In subsequent installments, he adopts a series of disguises (a peg-legged sea captain, a comely female secretary) that point up the character's uproarious lack of talent while revealing Harris' consistently ingenious artistry, here kin to Alec Guinness in his Ealing comedy prime. The former Doogie Howser knows how to expertly milk a laugh from a mugging glower, a sarcasm-tinged line reading or an extended bit of physical comedy (there's some especially funny work with O'Hara in this regard). And none of that counteracts the slight twinges of pathos he allows to break through the cartoonish veneer whenever the series tantalizingly references Olaf and the Baudelaires's backstory — something about a globally connected secret society that plays like a Jacques Rivette fantasia for kids.

How perverse to feel such glee amid such gloom. But there's something about Handler/Snicket's downbeat worldview that always intrigues and attracts, perhaps because it comes off as an invitation to engage more fully with life rather than run from it. Unfortunate as things get, the Baudelaire children push on, as does their nefarious tormenter. In this context, "expect the worst" is the motto of survivors, not capitulators.

Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith, Joan Cusack, Catherine O'Hara, K. Todd Freeman, Alfre Woodard, Don Johnson, Rhys Darby, Aasif Mandvi, Patrick Warburton
Creator: Daniel Handler
Directors: Barry Sonnenfeld, Mark Palansky, Bo Welch
Writers: Daniel Handler, Emily Fox, Jack Kenny
Premieres: Friday, Jan. 13 (Netflix)

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