I know it’s always a bad idea to start watching a new TV show during the semester, particularly during a week riddled with midterms and essays. Yet recently I started watching Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I’m immensely grateful I made that unfortunate decision.
The show, based on the popular children’s books of the same name, follows the trials of three siblings: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. After the death of their parents, they are taken in by the malicious Count Olaf—a man driven by greed as he attempts to usurp the Baudelaire fortune left to Violet when she comes of age. I remember reading the first book in elementary school and then trying to check out the other 12 all at the same time because I was so eager to find out what would happen next to the three orphans. So, of course, I was very interested in the Netflix television series when it was announced, and it did not let me down. The show manages to be both hilarious and heinous simultaneously. This juxtaposition is best seen through Neil Patrick Harris’ characterization of Count Olaf. He is ridiculous and theatrical at some points and abusive and frightening at others. The way this show is able to blend the scary and the silly is masterful.
The show’s premise isn’t out of the ordinary: three children, mistreated by adults in their lives, must prevail in the face of adversity. It reminds me of a Matilda vs. Miss Trunchbull or Annie vs. Miss Hannigan story; we are not strangers to the theme of children vs. oppressive adults in literature and film. Yet I would argue that this show is still extraordinary due to the narrative and visual choices made to bring the series' pages to life.
The books themselves are narrated by their author, “Lemony Snicket,” who sets up the story at the very beginning and is consistently appearing and reappearing, offering everything from warnings to anecdotes to vocabulary lessons. This feature poses the difficult and extremely important question of how to handle Lemony Snicket’s presence onscreen. The decision made was to cast an actor as Lemony Snicket who would make frequent appearances onscreen in order to incorporate Snicket’s clever quips seamlessly throughout the episode. Thus, like Lemony Snicket’s narration in the novels, he commences the story and is consistently popping up. Using Lemony Snicket in this way, rather than employing some other technique like a voiceover narrator, was the only way to portray this function of the novel really accurately. A voiceover, though it would function similarly, would take away from Lemony Snicket’s character by making him seem omniscient. While that choice works for many films and TV shows, it is crucial to A Series of Unfortunate Events that Snicket is not just an all-knowing, nameless, invisible voice but a subjective character with thoughts, ideas, and motives.
The design elements are just as key to the success of the show as the choice to portray Lemony Snicket as a narrator. The design of the show is almost cartoon-like; for example, the contrast between Justice Strauss’ bright, colorful, welcoming, immaculate home that is the embodiment of good and Count Olaf’s dark, crumbling, haunted mansion that is the embodiment of evil right across the street could not be more stark. In a show devoted to the power of children, this design is perfect because it gives the viewer a sense of unrestrained childlike wonder in which extremities are not avoided and something like a house can feel truly good or evil.
As an English major and a life-long lover of reading, I sometimes get nervous when novels are adapted for the screen. It can be frustrating to see a world you’ve envisioned in such detail in your head come to life in a way you did not imagine; then that film-world is what you see in your head every time you come back to the novel. I was concerned about all of this when watching A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I shouldn’t have been. Through the narrative and visual choices made, the world of the Netflix series was just what I imagined the Baudelaires' world would look like in my mind when reading the books in third grade. So, maybe, in retrospect, I should have waited to start watching this show and avoided the late nights it spurred. However, this is one of those shows that’s worth it.