Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: Intelligent or Irksome?

The recent Netflix remake of A Series of Unfortunate Events maintains the sophistication and uniqueness of the original novels, but has some glaring superficial flaws. Despite some excellent supporting characters, beautiful sets, and Neil Patrick Harris at his absolute finest, the Baudelaire children risk ruining the show with their tedious self-righteousness and complete lack of humour. However, the series gently promotes a practical attitude towards life which could well come in handy in 2017. This is without a doubt a children’s tale, but the morals it contains are also relevant to an adult audience.

Disappointingly, quirky characteristics that were charming in the books are frankly irksome or peculiar on screen. Violet (Malina Weissman)’s emotionless churning out of ‘inventions’ and the tendency she has to always tie back her perfect hair before setting to work makes her seem robotic, and her completely faultless appearance is slightly creepy. Meanwhile, Klaus (Louis Hynes)’ precociousness gets annoying very quickly, and his irritating contradictions and downright insolence make him seem little more than a spoilt and obnoxious child.

The Baudelaires from the series, certainly not a patch on the Baudelaires from the 2004 picture A Series of Unfortunate Events.

In general, the smug self-awareness of the two eldest Baudelaires is almost intolerable. The first time we meet them they are en route to Briny Beach, informing the tram conductor that a grey and cloudy morning is actually the perfect morning to visit the beach. They then proceed to skim stones with a machine that no doubt is intended to highlight their unusual abilities, but simply seems like showing off, and beam proudly – and inanely – at each other. In book form, the Baudelaires’ idiosyncrasies worked; on screen, they just get on my nerves.

Neil Patrick Harris is a sheer delight. Engaging, effortlessly entertaining, slick, witty…

I do have less of an issue with Sunny (Presley Smith), however, perhaps because she is unable to speak. Her subtitles are a genius idea, although I’m not sure I’d go with the spiky green font myself. The little quiff of hair is also a nice touch, but I find it highly unrealistic that either of her elder siblings had the wit or whimsy to think of it. A big deal is made of Violet and Klaus’ unusual and superior skills, but in my mind Sunny is the smartest and the sassiest child and by far the most interesting.

The first episode starts off slowly, possibly because of the dominant presence of the Baudelaires, but perks up significantly with the appearance of Count Olaf. Neil Patrick Harris is a sheer delight. Engaging, effortlessly entertaining, slick, witty – and far more likeable than the orphans. The adult characters are as a whole infinitely more dynamic: Fernald the Hook-Handed Man; Uncle Monty; the glorious Jacquelyn; and of course Lemony Snicket himself, played by Patrick Warburton and his comforting drawl. The children feel somewhat austere in comparison, as if they are just blank canvases for the other characters to revolve around.

Neil Patrick Harris steals the show in a delightful performance that brightens the low energy acting of the orphans.

This could actually be the case. Ben Travers, who reviewed the show for IndieWire last month, had an interesting take on the series which invites a deeper interpretation. Travers compared A Series of Unfortunate Events to the recent real-life unfortunate events in the USA, and put forward the suggestion that the show is the perfect metaphor and possibly a guiding light for us in this miserable political situation. A Series of Unfortunate Events has always had a pragmatic and realistic approach; the last episode ends with an assurance that, “you might dream that justice and peace win the day, but that’s not how the story goes”. Life is hard and then you die, as my stepmother tells me on a regular basis. Just as brutal events happen in the series, so they do in real life.

[…] in many ways silly and surreal – it is, after all, a tale for children – and there are many moments of expertly timed humour […]

I could, therefore, be persuaded to put aside my intense dislike of the elder two Baudelaires and consider a more abstract interpretation of the series. Despite their more tiresome traits, the children make use of unquestionably admirable qualities such as determination, critical thinking and reason, and apply these qualities in a methodical manner in order to solve the issues they are faced with. I always appreciate methodical thinking, and it cannot be denied that it is a more sensible way of dealing with our problems than burying our heads in the sand as Aunt Josephine does, or losing our heads completely (Mr Poe).

A Series of Unfortunate Events is in many ways silly and surreal – it is, after all, a tale for children – and there are many moments of expertly timed humour (mostly courtesy of Neil Patrick Harris, and Patrick Warburton’s deadpan demeanour). But perhaps its greatest strength is that it is seemingly a cleverly constructed reminder that in the face of adversity, a pragmatic approach is always the most effective.

By Lydia Watson

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