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February 6, 2017

A Series of Unfortunate Events: Not an Unfortunate Watch

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The series’ opening credits may tell you to “look away,” but if you do, you’ll miss the chance to watch an excellent show with brilliant writing and a gripping plot.

Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, adapted from the book series of the same name, focuses on the misadventures of three orphaned children, Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny Baudelaire (Presley Smith). In the beginning of the series, the three Baudelaire children are faced with the tragic news that their parents have passed away in a fire. They are then taken to live with the whimsical Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris). It becomes obvious to the children that Olaf is after their enormous fortune that they will inherit once Violet turns 18. This sets the stage for the entire season, with the children moving from home to home trying to escape Count Olaf’s clutches.

The first season has eight episodes, divided into four different stories. Each pair of episodes is based on a different novel of the series. While the episodes do flow linearly, each pair of episodes focuses on a new location that the children are sent to with a new guardian to care for them. Count Olaf is attempting a new ruse in order convince the Baudelaires’ new guardian that he can be trusted, and while the guardians always seem to fall for his trap, the children are able to see right through his plans.

This repetitive formula surprisingly works extremely well, as the show is not meant to be taken very seriously. It adds to the idea of melodrama and despair the show centers on. A Series of Unfortunate Events prides itself on being  just that: unfortunate event after unfortunate event. Oftentimes, it seems as if the show is overdramatizing for the sake of melodrama. This is largely in part due to the fact that the story is told from the point of view of Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton). Snicket, who is credited as the author of the book series as well, often cuts into the story represented in the show to add his own take on the situation at hand. He is represented as a historian of sorts, desperately uncovering knowledge about what happened to the Baudelaire orphans. He often cuts into the dialogue to emphasize certain points. Snicket is intended to be the narrator that presents the entire story to us, and his grimness is what adds the dramatic effect to the show. This creates an effect of anguish that highlights the futility of the children’s situation.

Any fan of the book series would be satisfied with the television series adaptation. Since Daniel Handler, who took the pen name Lemony Snicket to publish the book series, had a major role in writing the scripts, much of the dialogue and effects match the books. Since each book thus far is given two episodes—for a total of approximately 90-100 minutes each—to develop the plot, every detail is kept very true to the book. The characters, too, match how they are characterized in the books. With the exception of the Baudelaire children, the other characters are very exaggeratingly oblivious or harsh, and this is demonstrated very well in the television series. The narration of Lemony Snicket is taken almost word for word from that of the books. In contrast to the mess of the 2004 film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Netflix show is given proper time to develop each story and really explore the tragedies that surround the Baudelaire orphans.

The characters not only match the novel, but the actors themselves are excellent. Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf is particularly brilliant. With Count Olaf’s extravagant and over-the-top costumes, it is almost as if Harris was meant to portray the villain. He does a great job of simultaneously demonstrating how Olaf seems to be careless but is also devious and cunning. Count Olaf’s whims could not be captured by an actor who would take him seriously; an actor like Harris, who played a somewhat similar role as Dr. Horrible in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, captures this insanity as well as having the vocal skills required for the role.

Warburton as Lemony Snicket really adds to the melodramic effect of the show. To an average viewer, particularly one who never read the novels, this role could be a major turn-off. The constant breaking of the plot for Snicket’s add-ins of explaining specific phrases or even seemingly spoiling the story could be irritating, but in a seemingly opposite effect, it almost lightens the mood. It reminds the viewer that the show does not take itself seriously. Warburton speaks with a grim tone that really sets the mood for the entire show, adding a sense of bleakness.

The three Baudelaire children are also portrayed very well. A major recurring conflict in the series is the condescending attitude of adults toward the children, despite the fact that the adults are very ignorant. The three children are, in fact, the most intelligent characters in the show. Violet Baudelaire is skilled in inventions. She constantly builds contraptions that can help the children see their way out of sticky situations. She is also the eldest Baudelaire, and therefore feels the need to look after her two siblings. Klaus Baudelaire is skilled in reading books, which comes in handy when the kids need to scourge a library.  Sunny Baudelaire, who is three years old, has very sharp teeth that can cut through nearly anything. Sunny also speaks with baby words that only Violet and Klaus seem to understand, but it is gibberish to everyone else. The fact that the three children are so much more intelligent than everyone else is also intended to add to the miserable mood of the show. Additionally, the fact that no one takes them seriously because of their age demonstrates the idea that they are in a hopeless plight against the world.

A Series of Unfortunate Events is definitely a must-watch Netflix Show. While it is very over dramatic and often unrealistic, it is entertaining and clearly has very good writing and an exciting story. The unfortunate events that happen to the Baudelaire children have a reason; while they are dramatized for effect by Lemony Snicket, they do connect to an overarching plot that is likely to be explored further in subsequent seasons.

 

Tracy Goldman is a freshman in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at tag96@cornell.edu.

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