Who’s up for some miserable and heart-smashing TV? Oh, you are? Well, you’ve come to the right place sirs and madams, with the first season of the Netflix Original series “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. Will you be left crushed by the inhumanity of it all, or just mildly shaken? Here’s my two bits on the opening season.
So, I have not read the series of novels, or watched the Jim Carey movie from a while back. So entering this very cold will give an interesting take for sure. The three Buadelaire children Violet (Maline Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny (Presley Smith), have lost their parents in a terrible fire that engulfed their family home. And even though they have inherited the family’s fortune, they won’t be able to acquire it until Violet turns of age. So, their banker Arthur (K. Todd Freeman) brings them to their closest surviving relative who will become their guardian – an evil, bad actor by the name of Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris). Determined to steal their fortune at any cost necessary, Olaf begins his torment on the children’s lives in this tale with no happy ending.
Grim is certainly the word of the day for this season, and it hits you instantly how depressing and sad the whole state of affairs are here. Think along the lines of the original Grimm Fairy Tales, and you’ll have a good idea of the tone. Visually, it takes a lot of similarities to Tim Burton’s early work, with a tiny dash of Wes Anderson. The scenery and colour palettes are bleak and monotone, while many of the camera movements have that dollhouse-sense that Wes loves so much. It’s an interesting combination that does indeed translate across the heavily-laden style for the viewer.
The episodes are narrated by Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburten) with constant warning of the woes to come for the children, as well as piecing together the story as it expands, and morphs in complexity. Other characters are a little spoiler-tastic for me to mention, but fans might know who I’m hinting at.
Going to the characters, I think the kids they chose were very good choices. Their acting range may not be very wide, and their delivery a bit bland here and there, but they need to be illustrated as vulnerable despite their talents in inventions, reading, and for the baby, biting stuff. They’re never shown to have superior talents outside of these, and so most of what they do is what you’d see from a clever kid. I think Violet is especially good, she understands the traits of her character to a T.
But of course, the stand-out name will be NPH himself as Olaf. And he is lavishly horrible as Olaf should be. He brings a superb amount of charisma and intimidation to the role, I mean, he does shit that had me yelling for Olaf to be dropped in a vat of burning acid. He is put simply, a devious and manipulative villain in the best sense of those words. An antagonist you hate, but can’t stop watching all the same.
If there’s one big, BIG flaw in the characters, it has to be the Banker played by K. Todd Freeman. Don’t worry, his performance is fine, he clicks into the niche personality well. But the design of the character to be this complete moron was at times, infuriating me. Unlike Olaf, this guy repeats the same mistakes to the point where I was holding off on Olaf, and getting the Hydrochloric Acid bath ready for him instead. But, I’ll go into a bit more detail on that later.
The season itself is broken into four story locations, each given two episodes, as you see the Baudelaire children being sent from one guardian to the next. All of this is incorporated into a mystery that delivers secrets to you very rarely, and in very small amounts. Even the end doesn’t so much end on a cliffhanger, rather a tease to the audience that things have barely even started. You may respond to that well or badly, and either way I wouldn’t blame you. The general layout is for the children to enter a new location, Olaf to arrive and set up some fiendish plan, and the children’s escape from it. But there are always losses and sufferings along the way, so each shift in location isn’t a victory – more a delay of what worse be around the corner.
The good aspects are numerous. The set design is really interesting, always changing the mix of colours and locations to make each are feel new. They all have that same sad visual tone to them, but I enjoyed their creativity. I liked the cinematography, that linear dollhouse movement of the camera always keeping the viewer’s focus on exactly where the director wants you to look. The CG incorporated isn’t exactly done to a high-standard. In fact at times, it looks pretty bloody goofy. But again, they use it to cover scenes that would have been difficult to translate otherwise, so most of it I was able to forgive them for.
As for the witty use of words, overall it was what kept me enjoying it even through the most depressing of moments. The repeating jokes and play on words are integral to the show, and certainly gave the opening half of the season a few little giggles. The humour is absurdly dry, and I know that for some people, that will get on their nerves very quickly. But I had fun with it. Oh, and the cars used in the season are immaculate. A small thing to point out, but they were beautiful.
So far things have been rosy despite the dark tones going on. But I have some grievances to bring up. Firstly, the inclusion of some throw-away jokes that are clearly connecting to Netflix feel so out of place in a show that has barely anything modern in it. They simply didn’t work and I have no clue why they were tossed into the script. Then there’s the repetitive nature to the four central stories. The second and third are the worst offenders, where the scheme by Olaf is changed a smidge, but all the mechanics to his scheme remain the same. It had me a bit bored by it, and especially by how the Banker just kept responding like a complete idiot to it all. I wish things had been shaken up a little, because beyond the introduction to the new area, new character, and the way it all ends, it was giving me some serious deja-vu.
Minor complaints then, relate to some ideas that pop up within the stories, but go under-utilised. Or the lack of the kids using their talents outside of pushing the plot forward, or to a resolution. I wanted abit more of them being cool nerds, but I guess I’ll have to wait to see that in the next season.
I went into this knowing almost nothing of what would happen, and it felt like that was a good way to cast an eye upon this. I don’t know if it will be accurate to the novels for the fans, or capture the characters correctly, but taking on a show that just adored sinking into the murky swamp of sorrow was a relatively fun ride. I liked the cast they brought together, the visuals were interesting, some of the mysterious objects and hints were very cool, and the dry comedy is effective for most of the time. I just wish they have varied the delivery of each location’s tale a bit more, and gave Olaf more interesting plans to use.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” isn’t the stand-out season to make it essential viewing, there’s a chance it simply won’t be your cup of tea. I don’t doubt that we will see this return again, it has set up a lot of aspects well but needs to refine other areas to make them fit in and be more interesting. I’m pretty favourable to this, but, a bit of mending is required.
Thanks for reading!