Synopsis: After losing their parents in a terrible fire, the three Baudelaire orphans are tossed from one ill-suited guardian to the next, all while being pursued by a relentless villain who wants to steal their fortune. Along the way, they discover their parents had their own mysterious past as part of a secret organization.
Adapted From: A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket
These books are incredibly hard to adapt – they’re a collection of neo-gothic, absurdist, post-modern adventures, words which here mean requiring a liberal use of CGI graphics to make the settings and costuming look convincing.
I’ve read that this has been Netflix’s most expensive original show to produce to date, and it shows in its elaborate set design, slick graphics, gorgeous costuming, and tight editing. A lot of careful construction went into this series, but it doesn’t feel over-constructed.
This version of ASOUE translates into a visually quirky, Pushing Daisies vibe of steampunk, too-bright technicolor, which contrasts with the bleakness and dramatic irony of the Baudelaire’s storyline. The script feels exactly like the books (because author Daniel Handler helped draft it), which requires a lot of narration from Lemony Snicket’s perspective, but also lends the story a lot of comedic moments. The dialogue works on multiple levels, and it feels witty and sharp just like the books.
Part of what I love about the books is that they play with the English language. That same playfulness is found in the dialogue, where the children and the narrator are constantly defining words, playing on double meanings, and making jokes that the adults might understand better than the children (e.g. Charles’ use of the word ‘partner’ at the lumber mill).
Because of those wry, look-at-me jokes, I’m really not sure who the target age of this series is. For adults, the series caters to the same nostalgia we’ve been seeing with Gilmore Girls and other 90’s remakes, but isn’t convincingly dark enough. For children, the story might be age appropriate, but the pacing is a bit slow and the dialogue might go over their heads.
I found myself thinking in the first few episodes that the series either needs to be darker to suit the adult audience, or more comedic to cater to children. This is a problem for adult audiences, which remedies itself and will continue to remedy itself later in the series as the Baudelaire’s stories get more dangerous and they are no longer ingenues. However, some of the later books’ scenarios get so absurdist that I have no idea how they’ll portray them onscreen.
Neil Patrick Harris is perfect as Count Olaf, a role which can easily be over-acted and absurdist (thank you, Jim Carey). His comedic flair is a great addition to the somewhat bland portrayal of the Baudelaire children. Violet and Klaus act as blank canvases (literally, their expressions are mostly blank) for NPH’s performance to shine. I think the child actors are quite capable of handling this material, but I don’t understand the direction the child actors were given.
Throughout the story, with Violet in particular, the orphans are numb and expressionless. Their dissonance makes it hard to care about the Baudelaires when really horrible things are happening to them. After all, they’re supposed to be the brave, smart heroes of the story who we root for, but instead all we get are frozen, blank zombie expressions and a lack of convincing emotion. Danger doesn’t feel real, and sadness doesn’t feel real without heroes that feel those things and portray their humanity.
Other than that detractor, I really like this adaptation. It’s extremely successful, and I especially appreciate all the behind-the-scenes looks the series offers into the lives of the parents, along with the surprise twist near the end of the first season. All in all, I’m intrigued, a word which here means eagerly awaiting seasons 2 and 3.