'Series Of Unfortunate Events' On Netflix Will Charm And Delight | KERA News

'Series Of Unfortunate Events' On Netflix Will Charm And Delight

Jan 13, 2017
Originally published on January 14, 2017 11:58 am

I don't want to oversell this new version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I don't know how not to. Everything that the movie version got wrong, this TV adaptation gets right. And not just right, but brilliantly.

The difference is as stark, and as significant, as the difference between the movie and TV versions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- where the writer of that story, Joss Whedon, took the reins and made a television version much truer to his original vision.

Daniel Handler, who wrote the original series of Lemony Snicket books, has done the same thing here. And he's enlisted, as his key co-conspirators, two pitch-perfect collaborators: Barry Sonnenfeld, of Pushing Daisies and The Addams Family fame, as the director of many of the episodes, and an executive producer. And as another producer, and the show's central star, Neil Patrick Harris.

This new 8-episode Netflix version, which is written by Handler, is inspiringly faithful to the original books, with two episodes devoted to each of the first handful of stories.

The look, which comes from Sonnenfeld, is full-out fairy-tale fright mode — occasionally bright colors against oppressively grey backgrounds, aptly reflecting the mood of the stories.

And these are sad, sad stories indeed. The narrative begins with three children being told their parents have died in a fire that burned down the family home — and goes downhill from there.

These stories are cracklingly intelligent, and delightfully droll, and occasionally, surprisingly, laugh-out-loud funny. They're also so dark, they come with a warning attached — not just at the start, but throughout.

In the books, these warnings are delivered by the alleged author, Lemony Snicket. He delivers the same deadpan warnings in the TV version, too — but for TV, Lemony Snicket appears throughout as a pessimistic, gloom-and-doom on-screen narrator, sort of a modern-day cross between Rod Serling and Eeyore. And he's played by Patrick Warburton, whose delivery is as no-nonsense, and as inexplicably charming, as his disclaimers.

Though Lemony urges viewers not to watch A Series of Unfortunate Events, I'm begging you to tune in. I haven't had this much fun watching TV in quite a while.

The three kids playing the unfortunate Baudelaire children, the story's central heroes, are exceptional. Malina Weissman is Violet, the young teenage inventor. Louis Hynes is Klaus, the pre-teen bookworm; and Presley Smith is Sunny, the expressive baby with very sharp teeth.

Their chief nemesis is Count Olaf, an actor and schemer played by Harris, who adopts several guises and plots in hopes of stealing the family fortune the children will eventually inherit.

Different stories and episodes are filled with delightful supporting players and performances. Alfre Woodard, as an easily frightened woman, has her most playful role in decades. Catherine O'Hara, Aasif Mandvi, Joan Cusack and others pop in and out, all having heaps of fun playing outrageous characters.

No one has more fun, though, or is more outrageous, than Harris. He was a wonderfully camp, cartoonish villain back when he played the titular bad guy in Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog -- but that was only a warm-up for his evil ways in Unfortunate Events, in which he threatens the children who have been newly placed in his care.

I don't know how old children should be to watch this series — that's a call, parents should make for themselves. But no one is too old.

The tone of this show is utterly charming, and it never falters. It looks great, sounds great, takes maze-like twists and turns and preserves all the quirky things that made the original book series such a treat. Even the long discourses on proper grammar, and the deeply buried clues and puns, are here.

Harris even sings the show's theme song, which changes each week to reflect the updated action but always ends by encouraging viewers to look away. Don't you dare. Or you'll be missing one of the best new TV shows in a long time.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, Netflix premieres a new TV version of "A Series Of Unfortunate Events" based on the popular children's gothic novels written by Daniel Handler under the pen name Lemony Snicket. They tell the tales of three unlucky orphans who are constantly on the run from a repulsive and treacherous villain, enduring terrible accidents, itchy clothing and bad singing. Jim Carrey starred in a movie version in 2004. A little later, we're going to hear parts of two interviews Terry recorded with Daniel Handler. But first, our TV critic, David Bianculli, has taken a look at the Netflix series. And he likes it.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I don't want to oversell this new version of "A Series Of Unfortunate Events," but I don't know how not to. Everything that the movie version got wrong this TV adaptation gets right - and not just right but brilliantly. The difference is as stark and as significant as the difference between the movie and TV versions of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," where the writer of that story, Joss Whedon, took the reins and made a television version much truer to his original vision.

Daniel Handler, who wrote the original series of Lemony Snicket books, has done the same thing here. And he's enlisted as his key coconspirators two pitch-perfect collaborators, Barry Sonnenfeld of "Pushing Daisies" and "The Addams Family" fame as the director of many of the episodes and an executive producer and, as another producer and the show's central star, Neil Patrick Harris.

This new eight-episode Netflix version, which is written by Handler, is inspiringly faithful to the original books, with two episodes devoted to each of the first handful of stories. The look, which comes from Sonnenfeld, is full-out fairy-tale fright mode, occasionally bright colors against oppressively grey backgrounds, aptly reflecting the mood of the stories. And these are sad, sad stories, indeed. The narrative begins with three children being told their parents have died in a fire that burned down the family home and goes downhill from there. These stories are cracklingly intelligent and delightfully droll and occasionally surprisingly laugh-out-loud funny.

They're also so dark, they come with a warning attached not just at the start but throughout. In the books, these warnings are delivered by the alleged author, Lemony Snicket. He delivers the same deadpan warnings in the TV version, too. But for TV, Lemony Snicket appears throughout as a pessimistic, gloom-and-doom onscreen narrator, sort of a modern day cross between Rod Serling and Eeyore. And he's played by Patrick Warburton, whose delivery is as no-nonsense and as inexplicably charming as his disclaimers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS")

PATRICK WARBURTON: (As Lemony Snicket) If you are interested in stories with happy endings, then you would be better off somewhere else. In this story, not only is there no happy ending. There is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. My name is Lemony Snicket. It is my solemn duty to bring to light the sorry history of the Baudelaire children as it happened so many years ago. But you in the audience have no such obligation. And I would advise all our viewers to turn away immediately and watch something more pleasant instead.

BIANCULLI: While Lemony is urging you not to watch "A Series Of Unfortunate Events," I'm begging you to. I haven't had this much fun watching TV in quite a while. The three kids playing the unfortunate Baudelaire children, the story's central heroes, are exceptional. Malina Weissman is Violet, the young teenage inventor. Louis Hynes is Klaus, the preteen bookworm. And Presley Smith is Sunny, the expressive baby with very sharp teeth.

Their chief nemesis is Count Olaf, an actor and schemer played by Neil Patrick Harris who adopt several guises and plots in hopes of stealing the family fortune the children eventually will inherit. Different stories and episodes are filled with delightful supporting players and performances. Alfre Woodard as an easily frightened woman has her most playful role in decades. Catherine O'Hara, Aasif Mandvi, Joan Cusack and others pop in and out, all having heaps of fun playing outrageous characters.

No one has more fun, though, or is more outrageous than Neil Patrick Harris. He was a wonderfully camp, cartoonish villain back when he played the titular bad guy in Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." But that was only a warm-up for his evil ways in "Unfortunate Events." Here he is, threatening the children who have been newly placed in his care even as he welcomes them to his home, taking them on a tour of its increasingly dismal and gloomy rooms.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS")

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Count Olaf) Bathroom number seven, the only one you are allowed to use - it has all the usual amenities, though the management regrets to inform you that the shampoo is not tear-free. If anything, it encourages tears.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAT SQUEAKING)

HARRIS: (As Count Olaf) Rats bite. And this is where you will sleep, orphans. Out of all the numerous bedrooms in this enormous mansion, I have chose this one for your safety and comfort.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There's only one bed.

HARRIS: (As Count Olaf) As you can see, I have provided at no cost to you this complimentary pile of rocks.

BIANCULLI: I don't know how old children should be to watch this series. That's a call parents should make for themselves. But no one is too old. The tone of this show is utterly charming, and it never falters. It looks great, sounds great takes maze-like twists and turns and preserves all the quirky things that made the original books series such a treat.

Even the long discourses on proper grammar and the deeply buried clues and puns are here. Neil Patrick Harris even sings the show's theme song which changes each week to reflect the updated action, but always ends by encouraging viewers to look away. Don't you dare or you'll be missing one of the best new TV shows in a long time.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.