“In all honesty, I prefer long-form television to the movies.”
It’s a rare day I find myself quoting Count Olaf. Rarer still that I agree with him. But after watching the first season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events—the second major adaptation of Daniel Handler’s popular children’s novels, following a 2004 movie—I cannot help but concur with the unibrowed old scoundrel, and with his cheekily self-aware line.
As adaptations of A Series of Unfortunate Events go, I prefer this latest leap to television.
Clocking in at a tidy eight episodes, all within forty to sixty minutes, A Series of Unfortunate Events centers on the plight of the Baudelaire siblings—three eminently decent children forever on the business end of Murphy’s unhappy, bludgeoning law. Indeed the show, which follows the first four novels in Handler’s series, more than earns its title. In relatively short order, the children lose their parents; lose their house; get shunted off to live with one incompetent caregiver after another; and fall regular prey to the machinations of their greedy first guardian, Count Olaf, a murderous villain bent on seizing the Baudelaire fortune for himself.
In the words of the show’s own theme song: “This show will wreck your evening / Your whole life and your day.”
It’s that depressing.
While obviously we would not want to dismiss the suffering of fictional characters out of hand, the show excels in precisely the same way as its source material: it approaches its subject matter with a pitch-perfect ear for dark humor, and with an impishly ironic attitude toward storytelling. In large part, we have the superb work of Patrick Warburton to thank for this. Playing Lemony Snicket, the show’s narrator, Warburton projects a façade of weary resignation, proclaiming his emotional turmoil in the face of the Baudelaires’ misery while at the same time commenting on that misery in a voice that is hilarious for its sheer lack of affect. Moreover, with his frequent interruptions to define pesky concepts like “standoffishness” and “dramatic irony,” Warburton’s Snicket demonstrates an utter lack of interest in storytelling conventions—in narrative niceties like “linear progression” and “spoilers.”
“Sunny Baudelaire absolutely survives this particular incident,” Snicket observes at one point. “It is Doctor Montgomery who ends up dead, although not yet.”
Similarly, Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Count Olaf, deserves credit for the show’s dark humor, though to discuss his particular brand of humor, I find it useful to discuss the man he will inevitably (and perhaps unfairly) be compared to: Jim Carrey. The Count of the 2004 film, Carrey’s Olaf was a genuine scene-stealer—twisted and cruel, yes, but also a buffoon and a ham. A classic Jim Carrey character, really.
Harris’s Olaf is no Jim Carrey. Scuzzy and manifestly unpleasant, Harris’s Olaf does not, as Carrey did, luxuriate ridiculously in multisyllabic words (“the Baudelaire mansion”). He does not joke. He does not laugh. In this version of Olaf, we find a man at once violent and threatening and preposterously full of self-regard—a dangerous combination that gives rise, time and again, to Freudian slips, petty capriciousness, and mean-spirited showboating. And while certainly these tendencies provoke laughter, it’s almost always uneasy laughter, the kind that simultaneously acknowledges the looming possibility of a catastrophic snap.
For those who grew up on Carrey’s Olaf and on, say, his timeless impression of a dinosaur, the effect Harris achieves may be disappointing.
Still, for a franchise that made its name by straddling the uncomfortable line between disaster and humor, there is something about Harris’s glowering, unintentionally comical Olaf that feels entirely appropriate. There are teeth to his performance that even Carrey’s velociraptor lacks—teeth as sharp and as clever as a story like this one, which dares to tackle topics like childhood tragedy and the willful idiocy of adulthood with such admirable panache.
I, for one, look forward to the next entry in this series of unfortunate events.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.