If you’re looking for lowbrow humor, conventionally happy endings, and writing that doesn’t make you think too much, you may want to look elsewhere. For, this is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events we’re talking about, and I could not be happier with the product Netflix delivered to us on Friday.
It has been ten years since The End was published and it has been those same ten years since I’ve read them. I made the conscious decision not to reread the first four books before watching the series so that I could go in with fresh, less critical eyes and enjoy the adaptation more. Little would it have mattered, as the TV series is so faithful to the books in word, in tone, and in character, that one can almost read along with Patrick-Warburton-as-Lemony-Snicket’s deadpan narration while watching.
I will admit that I was a bit apprehensive about Neil Patrick Harris playing the role of Count Olaf, not because I don’t adore him, but because I do. I worried that I would not be able to separate the actor from the role, a main problem with Jim Carrey’s goofy version of Olaf (who I definitively do not adore). And, yes, at the start of the series it is difficult to not think of this as Barney Stinson in an Olaf suit, but as the story progresses, Harris’s Olaf becomes more sinister, more cunning, and more threatening to these orphans’ future. Never is Harris so effective as he is when playing Shirley in “The Miserable Mill,” a character that could have been played for laughs for the idea of a man in women’s clothing. Admirably, the series rises above this type of humor and plays it for the disturbing idea it is – that Count Olaf will go to any length, no matter how violent, to get his hands on the Baudelaires’ fortune. He is, at turns, creepy and menacing, while being endearingly ridiculous and delightfully metatextual. It’s a hard line to walk, but Harris does it with aplomb.
I must also applaud Netflix and Lemony Snicket for broadening their ideas of who these characters could be. With an impressively diverse cast – Usman Ally, in particular, is perfection as the hook-handed man – nary a moment is given to the question of racial inclusivity. It doesn’t matter. It’s not the point of the story and I’m happy to see that they’ve adopted the idea that a show does not have to be about race for it to include race. Nor does it have to be about civil rights to champion them, as there is a wonderful nod to the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage in the normalized relationship between the partners of Lucky Smells Lumbermill. Snicket smartly allowed for his stories to be malleable, to incorporate changes to our world that have occurred over the past ten years. These are, of course, serious issues, but this malleability makes for some very good, very metatextual jokes, too.
Essentially, the series does what the books have always done best: talk to children as if they were adults. There are, of course, jokes that will go over their heads – there were a couple explicit sexual references that made my jaw drop – but what I’ve always loved about the books is that they can be read on multiple levels at multiple ages. They grow with their audience, teaching them along the way. Netflix has captured that brilliantly and I sit with baited breath for the next installment, a phrase which here means “I figuratively can’t wait.” Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be indulging in my inordinate need to reread those thirteen books.