For Beatrice: I fell for you. Then you fell off a balcony.
Some reviews are buoyant and cheery. They are made from a batter of life-affirming hopefulness, encasing nuggets of touching emotional pathos, seasoned with hope, before being drenched in a sauce of highly amusing anecdotes. You might even go as far as to describe them as zestful – a word which here means ‘characterised by great enthusiasm and energy’.
This is not one of those reviews. The tale it describes and the story it endeavours, over the course of some twelve or thirteen hundred words, to unpack, is not one that is pleasant to the ear or pleasing to the eye. It is not a tale of puppies or pageants, of last-minute reprieves or last-gasp rescues, where evil is vanquished and the forces of good are suitably rewarded. It is not a review with a happy ending – and I beg you, with all that is decent and holy and with every fibre of my being, to turn away from your screen, and find something else to read. Turn away, before it is too late.
Still here? Right, we can move on.
The first thing that confuses people about Lemony Snicket is that it’s not a pen name. Author Daniel Handler may be hiding behind the citrus-tinged (acidic?) pseudonym who narrates every chapter of his critically lauded magnum opus, but Snicket himself is a fully-fledged character in his own right, fighting his own battles and demons – both inner and outer. From the outset there are things at which he hints while never actually divulging them: he’s not so much unreliable as downright miserable, although the gloomy dedications that open each book (each addressed to a woman named Beatrice, who has apparently passed on) indicate that he has his reasons.
Spanning 13 volumes, each of which comprises 13 chapters, A Series of Unfortunate Events narrates the perils and misfortunes of the Baudelaire children, unexpectedly orphaned when their parents die in a mysterious fire. At the behest of a misinterpreted will, the three children – 14-year-old Violet, 12-year-old Klaus and toddler Sunny – are sent to live with their closest living relative, the nefarious Count Olaf, a theatrical ham who has his eyes (all of them, which you’ll understand if you’ve read the books) on the Baudelaire fortune.
If you’ve not read the books, we’re anxious not to reveal too much: but suffice it to say that in the course of discovering who killed their parents (and why) the Baudelaire children unearth a world of intrigue, espionage, and corruption. There are deadly arsonists, underground tunnels, danger and jeopardy at every turn, and a great deal of fuss over the whereabouts of a sugar bowl. Nothing is as it seems, nobody is entirely trustworthy, and as with all the best fiction, the final instalments – while cauterising particular plot strands – nonetheless raise as many questions as they provide answers.
It’s perfect fodder for a TV series, but this isn’t the first time the Snicket saga has been adapted for the screen. In 2004, Dreamworks and Paramount made an aborted attempt to kickstart a franchise by adapting the first three books (with a fair bit of narrative shuffling) into a single feature-length movie. It starred Jim Carrey as Count Olaf – a man with more disguises than Robbie Rotten and the Master put together, making the rubber-faced Carrey the ideal candidate, but while he and his co-performers acquitted themselves admirably, something about the film’s tone was off, and it was some years before Netflix managed to acquire the rights to turn it into a three-season television series, the last of which was finally released early this year. This time around, it’s Neil Patrick Harris (The Smurfs) who heads up the cast as the villainous Olaf, while Patrick Warburton assumes narration duties as Lemony Snicket.
That the series works as well as it does is in no small part down to Warburton and the way his character is rendered. No longer is Lemony Snicket a shadowy, eunuchised figure lurking in a clock tower, delivering exposition in simple voiceover. Warburton (great when he’s deadpan, better still when he occasionally abandons it) assumes front and central duties as storyteller extraordinaire and makes himself visible from the very first episode, parading up and down the fourth wall in the manner of a grizzled sentry in dozens of different costumes, a passive observer who occasionally halts the action when he wants to monologue for a bit. Such a portrayal is vital once you realise that Lemony’s role is not merely that of archivist or narrator: he’s tied up with the Baudelaire history in more ways than he lets on, at least in the beginning.
If Warburton is as dry as a desert, Harris is a raging torrent of sneering anger and impotent outrage. A failed actor fighting a desperate inferiority complex, he’s keen to leave his inner layers as far under wraps as possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, wriggling and writhing beneath the surface. We see an awful lot of Olaf over the course of the show’s 25 episodes – sometimes he’s a sinister doctor, sometimes he’s a sadistic gym teacher, sometimes he’s just himself – and Harris is never less than fantastic, imbuing the rotten scoundrel with charm and charisma. He’s dastardly to a fault, but always fun to watch, which is just the way we like it.
It would count for nothing, of course, if it weren’t for the three leads. You roll the dice when you’re working with children, but in this case the gamble has paid off, with Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith doing a fine job. The scripts help: whatever the dilemma and however perilous the situation, the Baudelaires are always resourceful and likeable, relying on teamwork, bravery, and simple family loyalty to triumph over the obstacles that are continually thrown in their direction.
Do they triumph? That’s something we won’t explore, at least not here, although the title should give at least some indication that this isn’t exactly a cheery watch. From the outset, Snicket makes it clear that this is a tale of woe and calamity, in which nothing is fair or just – something which is established from the moment Count Olaf savagely strikes Klaus for failing to provide the roast beef he never requested in the first place. Good people die, and bad people get away clean; most prominent of all, however, is a sense that children have a far better grasp on reality than grown-ups, who are happy to misinterpret a situation and then carry on regardless, perenially ignorant. This is a Dahl-esque world where adults are either villainous, useless, or destined for an early grave, and the Baudelaires swiftly learn that they can rely upon no one but themselves.
There is a sense that you’re watching a morality play, but it’s one that skates the fringe of a darker shade of grey, particularly as the series of unfortunate events rumbles toward a subdued, semi-ambiguous conclusion. Harry Potter was renowned for its multi-faceted characters, and while Handler never quite serves up anyone as deliciously complicated as Severus Snape, he has a darned good try at it. The Baudelaires begin their quest for knowledge and understanding with a clear-cut sense of right and wrong, but it’s one that is eroded as they are drawn deeper and deeper into an increasingly tangled web, being forced to make some difficult decisions along the way. “People,” says one character to the orphans, towards the story’s end, “aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped up and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”
It’s a talking point, but unlike the latest series of a programme we won’t mention, it’s never preachy. Some of the most cutting remarks about good and evil come from a pathological liar, and it’s left to the audience to decide whether this is typical manipulation, or a good thing that comes from a bad person; a stopped clock that’s still right twice a day. There’s plenty of room for discussion here, particularly if you’re watching with children (who are, in the end, the intended audience). The show also does a fine job of addressing some of the common criticisms of the books – in particular the formulaic approach Handler takes during the first half of the series, in which every story sees the Baudelaires sent to a new and terrible place that’s infiltrated by Count Olaf, wearing a ridiculous disguise that works on everybody except them. The stories still work like this – that is, at least, until they don’t – but there are enough narrative feints and enigmatic sub-plots to keep you interested while you’re waiting for the adults to play catch-up. Even if you’re not engaged with the ethics of the thing, there’s still plenty of mystery.
There is mystery, but there is also silliness. This is not a show to take even remotely seriously. You can’t. A static camera lingers as characters deliver ridiculous observations as much to the audience as to whomever they happen to be addressing on screen – this is a wildly implausible narrative, and everybody knows it, and the trick is to have as much fun as possible. And by and large, everybody does. The substantial supporting cast bring just the right tone of family comedy to proceedings, finding roles for the likes of Joan Cusack, Catherine O’Hara (who also starred in the 2004 film version), Don Johnson, a bearded and barely recognisable Peter MacNicol, and even Richard E. Grant – but the special good egg award goes to K. Todd Freeman, who plays the hapless, hopeless Mr Poe to comical perfection, stealing every scene he’s in.
Paramount may have delivered a riotous chain of calamity and intrigue that swoops and dazzles through murky sewers and perilous clifftop clifftops while it tells a multi-faceted and complicated tale, but it probably isn’t for everyone. It’s polished, well-produced, and frequently hysterical. It will also irritate those of you who like your drama served with a healthy slice of realism, which the Lemony Snicket adventures lack, for all their educational value. Is it better if you watch with kids? Probably. Some things are. Doctor Who certainly is, at least these days. Misery loves company, a phrase which here means “Whatever”.
And when all is said and done, this is a show that thrives on misery. There’s something almost sinister about enjoying the flight and plight of these three helpless orphans, as they veer from calamity to calamity. It speaks to our base instincts to look at the car crash; to laugh at the dreadful BGT audition; to keep scrolling through the anti-vax Twitter thread. But there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it if you know it’s not real, and if you can make allowances for occasional narrative monotony and buy into the fact that a fictional world can be populated almost entirely by cretinous incompetents, then you’ll have a blast. We did. You don’t even need to read the books first.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is available on Netflix.