Fortunately, Netflix’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ does justice to Baudelaire orphans

"A Series of Unfortunate Events" | Netflix Grade: A
Joe Lederer/Netflix /Courtesy
"A Series of Unfortunate Events" | Netflix
Grade: A

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If the dismal tale of three unlucky orphans and the villain who chases them in pursuit of their enormous fortune sounds too dismal to watch, please, look away.

If, however, the idea of seeing the miserable history of the Baudelaire orphans done justice sounds appealing, then Netflix’s gorgeously gloomy adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” achieves just that.

The great misstep of the ill-fated 2004 film version was its severe lack of faith in young people. The movie got the gothic aesthetics right, but it failed to trust that children didn’t need a loud, slapstick, dinosaur-impersonating performance from Jim Carrey as Count Olaf to keep them interested — discounting the fact that the unrelentingly deadpan humor of the books made the series so popular in the first place.

This “Series of Unfortunate Events” commits fully to the droll tone and peculiar structure of the books, retaining the wry asides and extended definitions of Lemony Snicket’s narration.

Netflix never shies away from the persistent grimness of its source material; humor comes from wordplay and absurdity rather than patronizing “kid-friendly” comic antics. The bulk of the responsibility for bringing those qualities to life lies with the narrator Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton, who brings all-American charm and a Bogie-esque weariness to the role of matter-of-fact investigator of the Baudelaire’s misfortune. He pops up a few times per episode to explain a term as though he were a glum Sesame Street monster or to remind people they can stop watching when the situation on screen has become too terrible.

Each book is covered in two episodes, which allows ample time for Snicket’s digressions and the opportunity to revel in the details of this topsy-turvy fairytale world. The series is impressively faithful to the books, in large part because Daniel Handler (pen name: Lemony Snicket) is an executive producer and writer. Handler has the help of fellow producer and director Barry Sonnenfeld — among others — whose very appropriate credits include “Pushing Daisies” and “The Addams Family.”

The first two episodes find the perfectly cast Baudelaires sent off to live with Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a bad actor with nefarious intentions, after they are informed that their parents have perished in a terrible fire. There’s Violet (Malina Weissman), a 14-year-old inventor, Klaus (Louis Hynes), a 12-year-old bookworm and Sunny (the remarkably expressive Presley Smith), an infant with a knack for biting and playing poker.

Harris is the Olaf we deserve: campy fun without ever losing sight of the character’s sinister core. He sells all the disparate parts of that character — the stupidity, the cunning, the evil and the comedy. The entire supporting cast is equally excellent and star-studded, featuring the likes of Joan Cusack as the kind and heartbreakingly lonely Justice Strauss and Catherine O’Hara (an alum of the film) who fits right in as the evil optometrist Dr. Georgina Orwell.

The most significant change from the books is a greater focus on the overarching mystery of the V.F.D .— a secret organization involving the Baudelaire’s parents and Count Olaf that was revealed slowly and confusingly much later in the books. Here, the conspiracies and spies are present from the beginning, which bodes extremely well for future clarity. It also results in the welcome inclusion of secretary-spy Jacquelyn (Sara Canning), who works for Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) but mostly slinks around underground tunnels doing spy work.

At times, quirk threatens to overpower the heart of the story — the show does get overexcited about Harris’ presence and throws in one too many songs just because they can. Luckily for this unlucky story, nothing ever does diminish the emotional core of the Baudelaire siblings’ trials and the penultimate episode in particular is a straight tearjerker.  

Perhaps the story hits so hard because, despite the Tim-Burton-meets-Wes-Anderson whimsy, the story of three decent and resourceful young people facing a world of outright enemies and well-meaning-but-useless allies sounds remarkably realistic. Don’t take Snicket’s advice and look away — this might be just the story we need.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.