Uncollected Thoughts: A Series of Unpleasant Events – episode 1

Long ago, in the mists of time, when the world was not as it is today, and the Guardian was still a half-decent paper, so you can tell how long ago we’re talking about (the early 2000s, actually), I read about a series of children’s books with a dark and twisted theme to them that promised to hold a great deal of interest to adults as well. When my then-wife read the feature, she agreed that this sounded perfect for her elder son.

After overcoming the automatic suspicion that any sensible teenager has for anything recommended by adults (it’s going to be good for me, that’s what you think, isn’t it?) he and his siblings settled in to read the series, over and again, and so did their stepfather.

Indeed, I got so heavily into the series that when it came to the last four or five (of thirteen), he didn’t get the new book until I had read it first. Ain’t I a stinker?

That series was, of course, the gloriously morbid, downbeat, dry, didactic, absurd and understatedly hilarious A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket (a pen-name for Daniel Handler), in which the lugubrious Mr Snicket records the awful things that happen to the Beaudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, after their family mansion burns down, killing their parents and leaving them homeless and friendless.

Doesn’t sound all that enticing, does it? But then, in each book, several times over, the lachrymose Mr Snicket records his obligation with depicting the sad lives of these three innocent, and very intelligent, children whilst simultaneously urging his readers to look away, not to continue, to put the book down and go read something happier.

Meanwhile, the Beaudelaire’s continue their downwards progression from would-be guardian to would-be guardian, perpetually pursued by the evil villain, Count Olaf, a mountebank and a double-dyed baddie who takes in everyone around him whilst being a complete moustache-twirler. Snicket created a bizarre, real, implausible and attentuon-holding world with wonderfully dark comic riffs, such as the continual use of archaic and complex words whose meaning in context is carefully spelled out, and the dedications to the mysterious Beatrice who has already gone on ahead, e.g., from the first book, ‘To Beatrice: dearest, darling, dead’.

The series has been a massive success worldwide, which was down to not merely Handler’s dark imagination but his hyper-detailed approach, extending to control of the book’s packaging as well. Handler even provides gorgeously stylised illustrations under a second, even more elusive pen-name.

Given the film world’s overpowering desire to find a franchise half as popular as the Harry Potter series, A Series of Unfortunate Events was seized upon with gusto, with Jim Carrey talking the role of Count Olaf. The film merged books 1-3 into a single, but episodic story-line, but basically bogged it up almost as badly as The Golden Compass did with Philip Pullman.

However, Netflix have entered the fray, with the release on Friday of an eight-part series, based on books 1-4 (evidently two episodes per book). The screenplays are actually by Daniel Handler so there’s going to be no lack of faithfulness to the books, and Neil Patrick Harris is playing Count Olaf (and looking identical to Carrey in the film, but then both are based on the same very strong, very individual visual characteristics).

Better than that, where Lemony Snicket was no more than a voiceover in the film, here he’s played by Patrick Warburton, tall, dark, substantial, handsome, wandering in and out of the scenes, talking directly to the audience in dry, deadpan tones that are absolutely perfect. It’s a brilliant device and Snicket’s continual interruptions set a tone that then carries on into the formal, dry, didactic language the characters use themselves, establishing a world that exists in parallel to the ‘real world’. There will be nothing natural here, and from the opening moment, the audience is convinced of it.

The child actors are spot on, too. Malina Weissman (who’s actually slightly younger than Violet as she’s still only 13) is a familiar face already from Supergirl, where she plays the young Kara. Louis K Hynes is a very good Klaus, whilst baby Presley Smith plays the two-year-old Sunny, with the aid of a lot of CGI but does put a look wrong.

I was giggling from the outset. The opening episode has captured the tone of the books and creates that slightly-elevated artificiality of look, movement and word that makes every sentence funny. To be critical, the longer the episode (50 minutes) goes on, that constant tickling starts to lose steam, but then again the orphans’ plight gets steadily worse and that is the hardest of balances to maintain. And though Harris inhabits Count Olaf to the point of being completely unrecognisable as Neil Patrick Harris, he’s not yet frightening in thee way he really ought to be.

Still, there are seven more episodes of this series for him to escalate his performance, and I’m sure this is going to get better as the weeks go by.

Weeks? Yes, I know this is a Netflix series, and that all episodes have been released simultaneously, so that the whole thing can be binged through in a flat seven and a half hours, but I’m afraid this blog is having no such truck with new-fangled notions like that and we’ll do this the way Nature ordained, one episode at a time, thank ye kindly.

But don’t let me stop you. This one is bloody good fun.

(Mmm. That bit at the end. With Father and Mother Baudelaire. You mean, they’re not actually dead? What’s that about? Look, is there any more of that stuff in episode 2? Is it too late to start watching…?)

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