Netflix’s new adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a treasure-trove of cultural touchstones, but it is stylistically indebted in particular to two filmmakers called Anderson. The series’ visual palette is, in contrast to the German expressionist influence of Brad Silberling’s 2004 feature film, totally derivative of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The symmetry, colour and intentionally-wonky CGI backdrops are, if unoriginal, delightfully Andersonian. Meanwhile, the narrative structure of the show- which sees Snicket (Patrick Warburton) wander in and out of scenes, and specifically the montage of singing characters that closes the 8-episode run, are reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. That a contemporary TV series aimed at children and teenagers is so sophisticated in its influences and cinematic references is extraordinary and hugely admirable. But Snicket’s novels were havens of literary wit and verbal playfulness: a filmed adaptation deserves no less.
The decision to feature Warburton’s Snicket onscreen is the making of the show, creating a near-perfect tone of cynical curiosity, and allowing Snicket to gently interrupt the story’s darker moments with reassuring (or sometimes not) reminders that he, too, is witnessing these sad affairs. In contrast to Jude Law’s tight Britishness in the film, Handler projects a weary knowingness and air of mystery: he delivers the finest performance in the show. Equally terrific are Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes as Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, two of the three orphan protagonists (the third is a partially-CGI baby). Much more likeable than the film’s Emily Browning and Liam Aiken, this pair are charmingly naive and quiet, but bursting with brilliant facts. As a foolish, hysterical Mr. Poe, K. Todd Freeman creates a delightful cartoon character who cannot be convinced of Count Olaf’s presence in every location.
One star who cannot live up to his 2004 counterpart is Neil Patrick Harris. Though his chameleonic abilities are showcased more in later episodes (he’s particularly good as the Dick van Dyke-ish Captain Sham in The Wide Window), Harris simply cannot equal the unhinged brilliance of Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf. There are moments, as Harris struggles with the exaggerated Olaf voice, when one wonders if Adrien Brody would have been a better choice. But Harris does improve as the series goes along, and he’s aided tremendously by the fantastic Baudelaires.
The series doesn’t entirely ignore the style of the film: the score, by James Newton Howard and Chris Bacon, steals several queues from Thomas Newman’s magnificent ’04 compositions, and the use of accordion to capture Snicket’s zany style is utterly genius. Olaf’s house, one of the fictional habitats that frightened me most as a child, is similar in design, as is Aunt Josephine’s rickety abode– perched precariously on the edge of a stormy cliff.
Each of the four stories in this first season differs slightly: Barry Sonnenfeld directs A Bad Beginning and The Wide Window, Mark Palansky tackles The Reptile Room (the most Wes Andersonian of the four) and The Cat in the Hat‘s Bo Welch helms The Miserable Mill. While Silberling squeezed three of Snicket’s books into a 110-minute film, the show is almost absurdly-leisurely with its storytelling. Each book is given two 45-minute episodes, and this occasionally leads to overstretched scenes of Airplane!-style conversation and language-based comedy. If the show gets a bit slow now and then, it merely allows Weissman and Hynes more time to charm the audience with their delightful exasperation.
Marrying whimsy and dread with a delectable musicality, this is a wonderfully faithful version of Snicket’s marvellous novels, and as intelligent a piece of family entertainment as you’ll see in 2017. Season 2 genuinely can’t come soon enough.