Warning: Spoilers for A Series of Unfortunate Events (both the books and the show) contained within
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is unlike most children’s books. It has plentiful references to morbid literary figures, and expertly crafts a story that has no happy ending, even though the reader so desperately wants it to. It’s ironic in both funny and sad ways. And, of course, Lemony Snicket is an extremely charismatic narrator.
I was skeptical (a word which here means concerned about the quality of this project) when Netflix announced they gained the rights to and were in the process of producing this show. Series is a unique animal, and many shows and movies have been unable to capture the distinctive qualities of gothic and absurdist literature. However, the more I heard about the project, the more confident I felt that it would be done right. Neil Patrick Harris is a clear choice for Count Olaf, and Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket, is involved as both an executive producer and writer.
Admittedly, it took me a few episodes to really get into the show. My biggest issue was that it seemed like they were taking inspiration from Wes Anderson (and a bit from Zack Snyder), and copying it poorly. The visual style in shows and movies is important to me, and there was a lot of missed potential here. Wes Anderson’s style would have really worked here. He does a lot of visually interesting things with color and with odd camera angles. And this show almost did that.
Where Anderson uses bright colors to contrast greys and blues, this show used pastels. Perhaps this wasn’t taken directly from Anderson’s work, but, with few exceptions, that seemed to be the goal. However, there didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to when pastels were being used versus dark tones. Even within the Baudelaires costumes, there wasn’t cohesiveness in the color palate. Klaus dresses about how you would expect: lots of tweed and wool with deep blues and reds and some browns. However, Violet dresses much more brightly. In the first three episodes, she wears a pastel pink dress with a light blue sweater. These two outfits alone contrast harshly with one another. Rather than showing the Baudelaires as a smart, capable, mature unit, these costumes would make it seem like Klaus is mature and bookish while Violet is immature and optimistic, which isn’t accurate.
Occasionally, there are warm tones in the sets on the show. Justice Strauss’s library for instance is done in warm tones. It’s also exactly what you would expect for a library, however. Uncle Monty’s home and reptile room is done in warm, deep tones as well, and if this were a theme with safe spaces throughout the show, it would make sense. Instead, we get warm tones in a few places and the very occasional splash of color. Now, this can be done well, but in this case, it wasn’t.
Shooting scenes in profile looks awkward, but awkwardness can work for a cool visual effect. There were plenty of missed opportunities for that here, particularly in the first episode. When Mr. Poe tells the Baudelaires that they have just become orphans, part of the scene is shot in profile. Like other aspects of the cinematography, this almost gives the illusion of Wes Anderson’s unique visual style, but it isn’t quite there. The profile shots here were unbearably flat, whereas Anderson tends to use them to bring more dimension into the shot. Behind the Baudelaires, we see some features off in the distance, but nothing eye-catching or three dimensional. This issue with flatness comes up several times throughout the season. The set just aren’t terribly interesting. They tend to be monochromatic and mostly featureless. This effect, however, doesn’t seem intentional.
I also took issue with the special effects used throughout the show. Admittedly, Sunny would be difficult at best to do, even with an unlimited budget and access to the best special effects. Her movements came off as very unnatural and amateurish. This could have added to the absurdist themes throughout the show, but I don’t think they did. Rather, I think that portraying Sunny’s talent for biting is just hard to show. The cartoony look of shreds of rope and other material she was biting through flying up behind her didn’t really add anything. Rather, I think it detracted from the things that were working with Sunny.
I dislike that we didn’t see much of Violet’s inventing. While in the books, all of their talents fit together, in this adaptation, Klaus had the clear advantage over his sisters. The important part of Violet inventing things in the books was that she was able to visual mechanics and how things fit together. Instead, in the show, it just seemed like Klaus had read about it, so they knew how it worked. The show would have really benefited from more portraying more of Violet’s inventions (hopefully from practical effects rather than computer animation).
While it may seem so far like I didn’t enjoy the show, I actually ended up quite liking it. Visually, a lot of things could have been done better, but the writing was exactly what I wanted. The show was like A Series of Unfortunate Events 2.0. Elements of the mystery came through more clearly, and it hit all of the important points of the plot without adding in unnecessary detail. It took the medium and made it work in tandem with the story. The misdirection with the Quagmires was brilliant, and, even for fans familiar with the series like I am, it brought something new to the table.
The cast was also spot on. They were able to take the absurdist elements of the plot and characters and make them work while never making it seem overdone. There was enough subtlety and nuance that it balanced out the over-the-top actions and reactions in the story. NPH was made to play Olaf. These are the types of characters in which he excels. I also loved Alfre Woodard’s performance as Aunt Josephine. Josephine was of character of which I was never particularly fond, but her performance made Josephine much more sympathetic. It made more sense why the Baudelaires would go out of their way to help her, whereas, in other adaptations, she was pretty terrible (on purpose).
I think that fans will be pleased with this adaptation. Handler clearly understands how the film medium can bring things to the story that wouldn’t translate as well in text, and vice versa. The mystery is more compelling at the start of the show than I think it is in the first book. Though they reveal one of the answers to the VFD acronym in the first few minutes of the show and lay down major clues throughout the season, I think that the mystery (and show in general) will be compelling to both old and new fans for the next two seasons.