Stop reading this review. It’s only here to talk about a new Netflix show that you really shouldn’t watch, not unless you want to have an utterly horrible time watching something grimly inventive with an utterly macabre sense of humour. Perhaps you enjoy watching a hammy actor trying to access the fortune of three fiendishly intelligent children. Maybe you like laughing at hilariously exaggerated misery and production design that oozes gothic gloom. Yet this is a most upsetting tale and this review will only compound the misery by detailing the various ways in which the Baudelaire orphans suffer, so only read on if you are prepared to hear stories of frightful villainy and violence against some rather remarkable children.
Of course, such warnings are all part of the anarchic amusement of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the irrepressibly fun new show from Netflix based on Lemony Snicket’s books. Patrick Warburton (Kronk!) lends his mellifluous tones to narrate the series as Snicket himself, opening every episode with a grim caution: don’t watch this show! He calmly tells us that while it his job to document the trials and tribulations of the Baudelaires, we, as an audience, have a choice to watch anything else. Such fourth-wall-breaking counsel only makes the audience more intrigued (even the press release announcing Netflix’s series was from Snicket, apologising for it) and draws you in to one of the sharpest and funniest family shows to hit the streaming service.
The initial four episodes promise great things from this first season, opening with a lovely credits sequence sung by producer and star Neil Patrick Harris, as he joins in with the warnings, telling the audience to “look away, look away” in a number that will get stuck in your head and might even remind you of Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. From there, the plot rolls into action like a rickety tram and the audience is dragged into a pleasingly fake-looking world where every design element and costume is lovingly made and over-the-top. The ever-present narrator and charmingly overblown sets let you know at all times that you are being spun a yarn, keeping the tone light, even as the narrative pitches hard for the morbid.
The chief appeal of Netflix’s Unfortunate Events is just how funny it is. Warburton’s deadpan facial expressions and weary delivery are a constant joy, especially as he explains dramatic irony to the audience or delivers zingers such as “marriage is like performing as the back half of a horse costume; even when it’s happening on stage, you should still only do it with people you love”. Louis Hynes and Malina Weissman as the two leads are terrific, falling into a rhythm of slightly stilted, pitch-perfect line readings, as they react to the absurdity of the adults around them. Harris as Count Olaf is a solid choice – he’s not quite as manic as Jim Carrey in the film version, but nevertheless embraces the hammy villain role with gusto.
The uniformly excellent cast are backed up by sharp, witty writing from Daniel Handler (the real Lemony Snicket) – sly jokes about the value of long-form television and the worries of network executives stay just the right side of smug. Every frame is laced with an absurdist tone and some of the jokes induce a kind of baffled guffaw. To wit: “These are dissonant tortoises, soothed only by the sounds of Alexander Scriabin or early Sonic Youth.”
There’s more promise yet in these first four episodes. It’s worth celebrating a more diverse cast than the 2004 film – Aasif Mandvi plays a role previously done by Billy Connolly and K. Todd Freeman fills Timothy Spall’s shoes. The next two episodes promise Alfre Woodard where once there was Meryl Streep. It’s also thematically rich, with hints of Roald Dahl, as adults regularly refuse to listen to children and fail to understand them. Violet is a 14-year-old inventor, while Klaus spends his days reading complex books, both excellent role models for younger viewers, but adults consistently underestimate their intelligence.
Running through the background of each individual adventure (two episodes per book) is an overarching mystery that involves secret organisations, a multi-talented secretary and secret messages communicated through terrible films. For those who haven’t read the books, this is the most compelling reason to keep watching as the plot thickens – questions are asked and, as of yet, there are no real answers, but this is no aimless Lost and you can tell that the show knows exactly what it is doing. A spirit of old-fashioned adventure courses through every chapter, which should earn the show a host of loyal and devoted fans. Clever inventions, exhilarating escapades, ludicrous villains and macabre humour? Like we say, you really shouldn’t watch it.
All episodes of A Series of Unfortunate Events are now available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.