A Series of Unfortunate Events - Season One (Television) (Review)

A terrible, terrible thing happened on Friday 13th of January this year, rivalling all other misfortunes the historically horrible day has previously seen; ten years since the chapter closed and a failed film franchise later, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events found a new home on Netflix. Snicket's (the pen name of Daniel Handler, an author too afraid to use his real name to tell the dreadful tales of the Bauderlaire children) recollection of each woeful turn in the three young orphans lives' spanned thirteen novels, with the first four now being adapted in this eight-part television series, with a second season to tell the next five under way (and, presumably, a third and final season to see the story through, planned).

I'd go as far as to say that, along with the Harry Potter series, A Series of Unfortunate Events was the first book series to truly engage me as a youngster and I therefore have a soft spot for the tales told. I liked the 2004 film a lot more than most and as soon as the news leaked about the potential of a television series coming to the streaming service, I'd already signed my name down as firmly 'interested'. Below, having quickly binged the eight episodes on offer (each book is awarded two episodes), I summarise my thoughts of the series as a whole, with a few more remarks about each individual episode with a grade assigned to it. If you've caught up with the series, do let me know what you think of it too.

On the whole, A Series of Unfortunate Events benefits from a longer runtime to explore each of the novels in the television series, with this extra time afforded allowing the series to go into more detail and diving further into each twisted tale than the film adaptation. The Brad Silberling-directed film centred on the first three entires into the series, meaning Netflix's culling of the source material doesn't really come into its own until the final quarter of the series but it still remain a sturdy translation in its own right even when treading familiar ground. As with the film, which received a rather mixed reception, the performances are terrific all-round with the multi-faceted Neil Patrick Harris' Count Olaf (and his multitude of bizarre and intriguing incarcerations) equally dark and hilarious. It's camp, overly exaggerated and hyperbolised but it works for this character and these stories, finding a middle ground that successfully balances the fine line between self-parody and completely farcical rather well indeed. Another indispensable element is the three children and they are as wonderful as their (more experienced) film counterparts as the intelligent, judicious and unconventional youngsters; Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith all deliver well-calibrated performances that ensure audiences warm to them, even when they are written as a little pretentious and grandiloquent (a word here which assures that I too look grandiloquent).

Where the television really surges on its own accord is through the lead performance of K. Told Freeman as Arthur Poe and the recurring appearance of his wife, Eleanora Poe, played by the naturally funny Cleo King; both bring an absolute charm to the show that was missing in their character(s) during the film, even when their characters are beyond frustrating with their inability and impotence to see beyond Olaf's various disguises. Production designs, including sets and costumes, are magnificent here with a discerning quality that almost off-sets the reality of the piece for something a little cartoonish and, compared with the dark tone of the narrative, is wonderfully uncomfortable. The CGI is not always great - with one glaringly obvious scene painting on an animating Sunny's face, distracting you from the rest of sequence (I I had to go back to remind myself what had happened because I was too busy laughing at the shoddy attempt at CGI) - but it is otherwise passable for the majority of the run. For the most part, Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a few dark hours of fun, slightly bizarre but enjoyable television.

Having previously mentioned how the extra time affords the series more detail the film could not delve into, the continual error with every passing episode is that it is awarded too much time; each episode is roughly fifteen minutes too long, more often than not losing the way in the middle of each instalment (a problem that particularly plagues the second episodes of the two parter). Instead of two hours for each novel, the series would probably benefit from a reduced hour and a half runtime as it tends to find itself muddled in stretching it out to that extra half an hour. It's an easy fix going forward with the remaining two seasons (and nine books) and it will be interesting to see what Netflix learn from the relatively positive reception from season one.

With sweeping statements and generalisations out the way, now let's take a look at each of the eight episodes from the Netflix series individually, with a grade assigned to each episode to help with the comparisons - high points, low points and all!

The Bad Beginning: Part One (A-)

A terrific opening for the show with an episode that requires more than just telling a story; it needs to introduce characters, themes, important elements and it succeeds very well in doing so. It proves that a lot of the casting choices were right on the money, including the decision to make Snicket's narrator so close to the forefront of proceedings. It really sets the ball rolling by setting the tone of the series perfectly and, in fact, the series doesn't really hit the heights of the first episode again.

The Bad Beginning: Part Two (B)

Whilst a little muddled during the middle stretch, and the first signs that two hours to explore the whole novel is a little excessive, Part Two manages to continue some of the goodwill from the first episode. It only begins to scratch the surface of Neil Patrick Harris' brilliantly commanding turn as Count Olaf and hints at exciting things for Joan Cusack's Justice Strauss (another improvement over the film adaptation). A satisfying two-parter.

The Reptile Room: Part One (B+)

Sets and production values really come to life here, with animated and vivid backdrops spectacularly demonstrating what this show could offer. Aasif Mandvi's performance as Uncle Monty is a joy and translates well on to the screen, with a great sequence set in the theatre bringing some real laughs in the season's most comedic sequence to date.

The Reptile Room: Part Two (B)

A little slower and arguably covering too little ground to justify its hour runtime, Reptile Room once again signals the series' difficulty and struggles regarding pace and structure. There is, however, a genius meta moment and fourth-wall breaking in which the series pokes fun at its original origins as a film franchise, which is probably my favourite moment of the whole season and certainly one to look out for.

The Wide Window: Part One (B+)

Very possibly my favourite story of the first run of episodes, The Wide Window is an inspired adaption of its source material. Even though Alfre Woodard's performance as Aunt Josephine isn't as funny as Meryl Streep's, she still brings the character to life well as the next unconventional guardian for the Bauderlaire orphans. It takes on more of a grim and murky colour palette but excellently injects pops of colour throughout.

The Wide Window: Part Two (B)

With some woeful CGI overshadowing some of the most exciting sequences of the episode, the second half of The Wide Window again struggles with pacing issues related to its runtime. It spends a lot of time getting to a conclusion we know is coming. It is, however, one of the most entertaining episodes of the run and tonally works almost as a detective mystery, with some really terrific performances from the younger cast and a reduced role for Harris allowing others to shine.

The Miserable Mill: Part One (B-)

Possibly the least engaging story of the run, The Miserable Mill hints at some exciting narrative developments, with one twist in particular wonderfully being unveiled as a complete misdirection and completely flooring viewers. Although the whole series is a little absurd (usually in a good way, of course), this episodes pushes the whole thing into being too melodramatic for its own good and isn't as exciting as it should be until the final ten minutes.

The Miserable Mill: Part One (B-)

Regaining a little more steam for the second half of the story, this strange story comes to a head with an equally bizarre conclusion that sets thing up nicely for the next season. Catherine O'Hara is delightful as Georgina Orwell and even though the story gives her little to do and the narrative is plagued with conveniences, it's good enough to interest you in the next chapter of the Bauderlaire's story and eagerly await the second series.

Overall Grade: B

What did you think of the Netflix series? Did the series work better as a film or television adaptation and will you be coming back for the next season?