Netflix’s new series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” is pretty upfront from the first frames of the show that what is about to unfold won’t have a happy ending. In fact, the opening to the show constantly warns the viewers to look away and not peek inside the narrative that’s about to unravel.
For those who decide to reject the odd request from the show, they’ll find an immersive, creative and intriguing new series firmly planting itself among the best of Netflix’s catalog.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” is based upon the book series of the same name written by Daniel Handler under the penname Lemony Snicket. The first season covers the first four books in the series, devoting two episodes to each book for a total of eight episodes.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” features an all-star cast, including Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Alfre Woodard and Joan Cusack.
The series gives an account of the Baudelaire children: Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith), three orphans who are forced to move in with their distant relative Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris).
The Baudelaire children are inheritors of immense wealth from their deceased parents, but the money cannot be used until Violet becomes an adult. Count Olaf dispatches several mischievous plans to steal the money from the children, leading to the children’s moving from caretaker to caretaker with the evil Olaf in constant pursuit.
What makes this series work so well is first and foremost the visual aesthetic. The show from beginning to end feels like it is a stage play, and we are the audience viewing it live.
The script reflects this audience position consistently throughout the eight-episode season as many nods and fourth-wall breaks are made in order to subtly remind the audience that what we are watching is in fact a show. This technique helps the audience suspend disbelief to the many wild and unconventional beats and plot points of the series.
Visually, the series is reminiscent of the best work by Tim Burton, at times full of color, while at others depressingly without it. This juxtaposition between episodes containing color and those withholding it helps set the tone for each episode while also playing with the audience’s sense of mood.
Sometimes the story will introduce something of great tension in the midst of a bright and vibrant scene, or it will present some levity in the middle of a dark and drab locale.
Helping to accent the visual style of the show are the performances living within it. Firstly, the acting by the children is what drive the series. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes present a refreshingly new type of relationship. Weissman’s Violet is an inventor and great scientific mind, while her brother Klaus is a walking encyclopedia. Both rely on each other to solve various problems they face over the course of the first season.
The chemistry between the two characters is fairly amazing as each respective performance has the intended effect of making the audience believe that in order for the Baudelaire children to be successful, they must work together.
Each child has a set of weaknesses that is complimented by the strengths of their siblings. This leads to instances where the children often fail when not reinforced by the presence of their kin.
Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf has to be the best performance of the show because the character is forced to construct and portray many performances within the story.
Olaf, a failed actor, pretends to be a scientist, sailor and female receptionist. Each micro-performance has its own set of nuances and idiosyncrasies that provide depth and intrinsic comedy to Count Olaf.
It takes a skilled actor to pull off the type of performances that the Count Olaf character demands, and Neil Patrick Harris shines in the role of many roles.
I think one of the more captivating features of the show is the way it structures itself. As said earlier, the show employs fourth-wall breaks to remind the audience that this is in fact a show, but the breaks also fulfill another purpose: they are used as learning tools.
For younger children, the show uses its fourth-wall breaks to educate them on words they may not understand. One may not be a fan of treating an audience like children, but when the audience of a show will have an undeniably significant portion of children, structuring the show to aid in their learning is an incredibly intelligent use of the medium.
Adults needn’t worry, as the show is plenty entertaining for them as well, as the use of language and plot are exceptionally unique and intriguing.
The promise stated in the opening sequence of the show, that the story doesn’t have a happy ending, is also reinforced throughout. At times, the plot plays with this idea and just when the audience believes that the Baudelaire children are at the cusp of happiness, any insinuation of that idea is heartbreakingly yet creatively ripped away.
The construction of each two-episode arc is fairly repetitive, which might get increasingly less endearing as the show continues with future seasons, but for now it is fascinating to see how the Baudelaire children escape each of their particularly unique situations, even if some elements remain fairly constant throughout.
The one major criticism that I have about the show is that it can be formulaic. The middle chunk of each two-episode narrative is distinctive, but the beginning and end of those stories are anything but. For now I don’t believe that to be a problem, but it does have me a bit concerned for future seasons.
All in all, Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” provides a distinctive and unique story that is sorely needed in today’s television. Rejecting more conventional styles of storytelling and set design, the show proudly stands out from any show currently airing on TV. The characters, performances and visual style are worth your attention, even if the show pleads that you don’t watch.
I give “A Series of Unfortunate Events” season one an 8.75 / 10.