Do not watch A Series of Unfortunate Events.
That’s what narrator Lemony Snicket (pen name of author of the original books Daniel Handler but a separate entity in the show played by Patrick Warburton) is going to tell you repeatedly throughout the series. This is sticking to the series’ notoriety for addressing its audience in the hopes that they will turn away from the endless adversities that plague main characters Klaus, Violet, and Sunny Baudelaire (Louis Hynes, Malina Weissman, and Presley Smith respectively), whose parents have recently perished in a fire and have been placed under the care of the nefarious self-proclaimed thespian/playwright Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), who will do anything in his power to claim the orphans’ extensive fortune. But if there’s one thing I can tell you that the show will continuously deny, it’s that you absolutely should watch it.
The series’ diligence in keeping with its trademark meta addressing of the audience is not solely from the work of some dedicated ASOUE fans – Daniel Handler himself helped write and produce the entire show, making sure to stay in line with his own source material as close as possible (at least as far as I remember; I haven’t read the series in some time), many lines having been taken straight from the books. Every two episodes covers one novel, essentially making a one hour and forty minute movie for each story and allowing the room to breathe and explore each book fully, obviously much more so than what the 2004 film adaptation allowed for.
Speaking of which, the spirit of the books is captured exceptionally well. The gothic irreverence and absurdism accentuates its dreary steampunk style beautifully and is only made better by the lack of specificity of a time period; jokes about the internet and Uber are made, but no one is seen using a cell phone or driving any modern-day vehicles. The sky is consistently cloudy and the show generally looks pretty washed out but don’t let that fool you – it’s funny as hell. The witty, deadpan, impassive type humor is nailed excellently with credit due to both brilliantly clever writing and some truly staunch performances.
The kids aren’t necessarily great but they’re certainly sufficient. The adults are who truly shine: Harris is some inspired casting and although he never seems too entirely threatening, he expresses the humor in Olaf’s overt arrogance nicely and he really sells the conspicuous vile intentions that everyone but the children seems to be unaware of. K. Todd Freeman as Mr. Poe is also a stand out, his obliviousness being as infuriating as it is amusing but the real star is Warburton as Snicket. His droll and sardonic narration is almost strangely comforting and his constant vocabulary descriptions teeter a very fine line of being repetitive and obnoxious, but manage to service the wry style of the show.
Most impressive though, is how in tune with the themes of the source material the show is. Every adult in the show is either a cunning evil schemer or a well-meaning but helplessly clueless dope, inciting an essential message for kids – don’t trust every adult you meet as a good number of them are cruel, selfish, or just plain stupid. But in the face of such adversity that these people will burden you with, find sanctuary in standing in solidarity with the people you hold dear to you and also in your passions, whether it be inventing, reading, or biting anything you can get your teeth on.
I can’t say the series doesn’t stumble a couple of times – there’s standard television quality CGI that pops up a couple of times (although I will admit in certain cases it actually aligns with the absurdity) and there’s a couple of meta winks and nods that perhaps were a bit too blatant (I really only need one joke about the benefits of streaming television) but it’s hard to hold it too hard against a show that balances such grim subject matter against playful humor so expertly. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a show that manages to stay true to its source material while also offering its own merits in a live-action medium without having to compromise any charm in the process.