How much should an adaptation stand on its own, divorced from the original source material that inspired it?
This is the question I tried to answer as I watched Netflix’s adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, because — to be upfront — I never read Daniel Handler’s books as a kid or otherwise. (If you want more of a side-by-side comparison of the show to the books, please turn to Vice’s Pilot Viruet and/or this piece from my colleague Aja Romano.)
But I do watch approximately a metric ton of television, so I was curious to know how Netflix and Handler — who wrote the first episode and was far more involved with this adaptation than the 2004 movie — would turn the books’ macabre prose into eight episodes of television.
The result is a scattered series that filters its wit through aggressive quirk. Neil Patrick Harris leads the way as the equally campy and dastardly Count Olaf, who wants nothing more than to steal both the spotlight at his community theater and the vast fortune of precocious orphans Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny (astonishingly expressive baby Presley Smith) Baudelaire.
Cue chaos, mayhem, and the wry narration of Lemony Snicket himself (Patrick Warburton), who also occasionally shows up in the background of the action to deliver grave warnings about how horrible everything is and will be forever.
So to take a page from Snicket’s book, let’s get the bad news about the series out of the way first. (And as a warning: There are light spoilers in here, so if you care about those, I’ll also borrow a phrase from the sinister opening credits: “look away, look away.”)
The Bad News: this show never gets a handle on its tone or pacing
For a show that came out of Handler’s very specific voice — with Handler’s direct involvement, no less — Lemony Snicket sure has trouble settling into its tone.
For one, many of the actors seem to think they’re all on different shows. Harris, all melodrama and exaggerated accents, is playing to the back of the room; the kids he’s chasing blink back at him, voicing their protests in monosyllabic bursts. Harris, Weissman, and Hynes have to carry most of the show’s weight, and it’s obvious throughout the series that they’re struggling to figure out what the hell it is they’re trying to hold up.
It definitely doesn’t help that Netflix’s Lemony Snicket has no grip on — or interest in — pacing itself in a way that makes much sense.
It didn’t take long for me to realize what I was watching with A Series of Unfortunate Events: literally, a series of unfortunate events. The loose story rarely deviates from the same pattern: the kids run from Olaf, who then finds a new disguise and clueless adult to fool, the kids protest that he’s Olaf, the clueless adult doesn’t believe them, things go awry, etcetera and so on.
When watching episodes back to back, this pattern becomes an annoying loop, and no amount of self-aware narration can save it. Add that to the fact that episodes range wildly from 40 minutes to over an hour, and it’s clear that there’s no rhyme or reason to be found here.
Now, granted, that “anything goes!” vibe is probably exactly what Lemony Snicket is aiming for — but that doesn’t make the show nearly as fun to watch as it thinks it does.
The Good News: every so often, Lemony Snicket is genuinely fun and/or wickedly weird
The one solid thing Lemony Snicket has going for it is that it truly doesn’t look or feel like anything else on television right now. Washed in a bleak gray filter, the show finds Olaf chasing the Baudelaires through creaky mansions, lush mazes, and fiercely whipping winds on a treacherous lake. The CGI is obvious, but purposefully so; one of the few clear aspects of Lemony Snicket is that nothing on this show is supposed to feel grounded in anything real.
This is something that the Lemony actors seem to understand in theory, but that only a few manage to calibrate their performances toward. For as much as Harris vamps and the Baudelaire orphans try to out-precocious each other, the best acting comes from side characters who pop in and out of their world, bringing with them the exact right amount of absurdity.
The most notable of these include Joan Cusack as Olaf’s nervous neighbor Justice Strauss, Sara Canning as a take-no-shit spy, and Alfre Woodard as the Baudelaires’ hyper-nervous Aunt Josephine. Another welcome sight is the cool-headed pairing of Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders as (spoiler alert) the Baudelaires’ parents, who are very much alive — or are they? (Cue sinister music.)
But chief among the best actor additions is Warburton, whose Snicket is solemn but sharp. He pops up throughout the series like another piece of set dressing, his clothes morphing to fit the scene at hand in a way that makes him feel like part of a dream (or a hallucination, depending on just how wacky the scene gets). But he shows up less and less as the series keeps steering into its own stranger instincts, and man, did I miss him.
You don’t have to “look away,” but don’t expect this world to usher you in with open arms
For someone who hasn’t read the books, Lemony Snicket’s onscreen world isn’t exactly the most welcoming (and no, not because Lemony Snicket so often tells us to stop the story while we’re ahead, it’s just “too awful,” “turn back while [we] still can”).
Book readers will undoubtedly find things to love in the twisting Gothic sets (thank you, Netflix’s generous budget!), its clear affection for the source material, and the generous runtime a movie adaptation could never allow. From the outside looking in, though, unraveling Lemony Snicket’s many strange-for-the-sake-of-it twists and scattershot storytelling feels like more trouble than it’s worth.
The first season of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events is now available to stream on Netflix.