Fans of Lemony Snicket's unpleasant account of the Baudelaire tale have been spurned before. The 2004 film was a disaster, both in the attempt to squash the events of three eventful books into under two hours of screen time, and in the comedic tone with which Jim Carrey (as Count Olaf) and others took to their roles. It made its money back (and then some), but planned sequels spanning the remaining the books have since been sidelined.
Some may even argue that the books themselves proved a disappointment, especially in their ending and the lack of answers to the numerous mysteries which snowballed over the 13 book series.1 For those reasons it's not hard to see why when Netflix announced they were adapting the story into a series it was met with scepticism, but were we correct in being so?
Series 1 covered the first four books, each split in two hour long episodes. This allowed ample time for covering each story in more detail and really doing the plots justice. The casting was also brilliant. The choice of Patrick Warburton to play Snicket as was perfect, and keeping him around as both narrator and active on-screen character to tell that story was a masterstroke. The children seem to be well suited to their roles2, and Neil Patrick Harris makes for a good Count Olaf.
Tone wise it's a bit hit and miss for me. Harris does a good job of switching between sinister and slapstick, but it's still too much on the silly side and a far cry from the wry humour of the books. The writing generally is great though, especially in connecting on an emotional level. I wanted and believed Uncle Monty would live, even though I knew he was set to die which wasn't something I would have thought possible.
The parents decoy subplot was clever, and I imagine fooled some new to the story, but even outside that the end was a disappointing fizzle considering how woven into the series they've been. Hopefully it'll be utilised more next series with the introduction of the Quagmires.
The film spewed blunders left and right from awful acting to woeful writing, but the one thing it did right throughout it was effects. The majority of what you see is practical and it's all the better for it. The world feels real and the aesthetic matches that of the books well; it's only been 13 years so far but it looks like it's ageing well.
The TV series on the other hand makes use of an alarming amount of CGI for everything. The scenery (foreground and background), vehicles, inventions, action, and even some characters all make exuberant use of digital effects. To make it worse it's not even that good, resting in a weird uncanny valley where it's just off enough to pull you out of the show. Sunny falls victim to this numerous times along with the cars which seem immune to the normal laws of physics.
The world in which this tale of woe is set has always had a bit of a timeless feel to it. Set designers (or graphic designers as the case may be) captured this look well, keeping it vaguely old fashioned but with enough flourishes of modern furnishings to avoid seeming dated. People will use mobile phones or make occasional references to the internet and it somehow doesn't feel out of place next to vintage cars and rotary phones.
There's one glaring exception to this: when the Baudelaires are trying to work out how they're going to visit every egg sandwich shop and Sunny makes a joke suggestion subtitled as "Uber?". Never before have I been so thoroughly pulled out of a world, and to have it happen by product placement of all things made it all the more jarring. Uber doesn't fit in this world, it's just too thoroughly modern.
Going into the show I forgot it was a musical... wait what? That's right, though they're used sparingly this tale does have a smattering of musical numbers. The opening credits are the first of these, in some part replacing the blurb that was itself a bonus story in each of the original books. The song itself is pretty good, though weird when you realise it's count Olaf singing it. That doesn't really fit with the rest of the narrative.
While still a damn site better than The Littlest Elf from the film, most of the other songs were forgettable or overly comedic. The series finale song was actually great mind. It was wholly unexpected and had me feeling very emotional. It captured the misery marvellously.3 I'm still listening to it now even weeks after the show finished.
The Series was good. It's captured the general feeling of the books well, no doubt helped by the fact that David Handler is both a writer and executive producer. I'm also enjoying that it's giving us mysteries and answers beyond those covered in the core books and despite a few flaws I'll be waiting in anticipation for the next series.
This particular trait never bothered me and the books have always had a special place in my heart. They were one of the few children's series which actually ended while I was still a child, letting me finish it then rather than returning to it later as I did with Artemis Fowl and others. ↩
Yay for a Klaus with glasses! ↩