Monday, January 30, 2017

For a Show About Relentless Misery, 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' Is Ironically Delightful

Before I got to read the books, I saw the movie Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events first.  I moderately liked it, but didn’t quite “get” it.  Aside from Jim Carrey’s performance as Count Olaf, nothing else about the movie struck me.  Later on, I was able to read some of the books (though, as of writing, I only own one), and enjoyed them tremendously.  As a children’s book series, I found it very unique and smart.  It dares to be tonally dark and narratively complex, and then trusts its young readers to handle them and to appreciate its satirical nature and inherent cleverness.  Thus, afterwards, I gained a better appreciation of the film when I watched it again.  However, since then, I also maintained the opinion that a TV mini-series – whether animated or live-action – would have worked better.

And now, that finally happened with this new Netflix series.
A Series of Unfortunate Events follows the plight of the Baudelaire children – the eldest, Violet (Malina Weissman), who shows remarkable aptitude in inventing and mechanics; the middle-child, Klaus (Louis Hynes), a bookworm; and the youngest, Sunny (Presley Smith), a baby with extraordinarily strong and sharp teeth.  After a mysterious fire destroys their home and takes the lives of their parents, the three Baudelaire orphans and their parents’ estate become the responsibility of Arthur Poe (K. Todd Freeman), a well-meaning but patronizing and gullible banker suffering from a chronic cough, who puts the three siblings under the guardianship of a supposed distant relative named Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a dastardly actor determined to take the Baudelaire fortune for himself by any means necessary.  As the children proceed to elude his villainous attempts, their parents’ secrets are also revealed to them along the way.

Count Olaf is one of the most notably despicable villains in fiction ever.  And what makes the whole concept of A Series of Unfortunate Events work is hinged on him as character – having the right amounts and mix of hateability, campiness, and comedic charisma.  Thus, Neil Patrick Harris has probably the hardest job in the cast, as he’s expected to carry the show for himself when necessary.  And I think he nailed it.  He’s noticeably enjoying the role.  I was probably more entertained with Jim Carrey – probably because he was more over-the-top – but Harris might be the best live-action Olaf that can possibly be.  He’s particularly the most fun when projecting the “master of disguise” aspect of Olaf.
The other performances are great, too.  The actors, especially the supporting ones, relish in how ridiculous their respective characters and dialogue are.  And it shows.  My favorites, aside from Harris, are the performances of K. Todd Freeman and Aasif Mandvi (who played the extremely loveable herpetologist, Dr. Montgomery Montgomery).

Indeed, this series is a delight to watch.  But not only because of the very entertaining characters and performances.  The production value is fantastic, the sets are stylish, the visuals are beautiful, the storytelling is charming, and the writing is quite witty (though too witty for its own good sometimes).  It has the feel of a first-rate Wes Anderson movie.
It basically follows the plot of its source material – with two episodes covering one book (its debut season has already covered the first four; at this pace, it will be a three-season series).  However (mild SPOILERS), there’s this early plot twist that makes it seem that it will be deviating from the book in one significant aspect.  But in another plot twist later on, this assumption is revealed to be false.  It was so well-executed, comparable to the plot twists of Westworld.

It’s not always an easy watch though; it’s titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events” after all.  It’s full of depressing and frustrating sequences.  Whenever there seems to be a gleam of hope, the narrative quickly makes a 180-degree turn to despair.  And though I know where this show is coming from, I still can’t help but be upset at times of the dimwittedness of the adult characters surrounding the Baudelaire children (especially Mr. Poe).
But A Series of Unfortunate Events is somewhat of a celebration of misery after all.  It thrives and commits to its bleak tone.  Right from its opening, the show perfectly sets what’s it’s all about, as its very catchy intro song, i.e. “Look Away” – which has well-written lyrics, and sang wonderfully by Neil Patrick Harris – implores the viewers to not watch the show, questioning why would they want to watch a feel-bad show instead of a feel-good one – a sentiment which narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) reiterates several times, in different approaches, throughout the series.  Still, its lack or slowness of immediate, happy, and satisfying resolutions ironically makes it more interesting and funnier.  It’s black comedy at its best.

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