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“If you were interested in stories with happy endings, then you would be better off somewhere else,” an ominous narrator warns his audience in the opening of the new Netflix show “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” starring Emmy winner Alfre Woodard and Tony nominee K. Todd Freeman. This deterrent, as well as the short pause allowing viewers time to push the back button, sets the tone for the grim, sordid tale to follow.
Based on the 13-book series written by Lemony Snicket (the author), Lemony Snicket (the character) played by Patrick Warburton, laments the depressing story of The Baudelaire Orphans, three young children left under a cycle of negligent guardians, each worse than the last, after their parents perish in a terrible fire.
None of them quite so terrible, however, as the first — the cruel Count Olaf (played by Neil Patrick Harris), a mediocre actor and eccentric criminal after the fortune Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire’s parents left behind.
In the eight-episode season, which follows the first four books, the crafty, bookish, and sharp-toothed Baudelaires evade Count Olaf at every turn. But he won’t rest until he gets his hands on that fortune, and so, with his theatre troupe of henchmen, he reappears in the children’s lives, each time under a new disguise, effectively repeating the same formula every episode. New guardian, Count Olaf appears, Baudelaires expose him.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Woodard plays the children’s third guardian, Aunt Josephine, a widow and panophobic grammar-Nazi with close ties to the children’s parents. Originally portrayed by Meryl Streep in the mixed-reviewed 2004 film adaptation, which starred Jim Carrey, Josephine is described as a “fierce and formidable woman” when her husband Ike was alive. Now she’s afraid of realtors.
Freeman (Wicked, Airline Highway) plays a financial banker named Mr. Arthur Poe, the executor of the Baudelaire estate. While he means well, he’s, in fact, a bumbling idiot completely ignorant of the children’s plight and oblivious of Count Olaf’s ridiculous disguises. He not only delivers the news of their parent’s death but, due to his misinterpretation of the will, he’s partly to blame for placing them in Count Olaf’s care in the first place.
Image: Joe Lederer/Netflix
Both brilliantly capture their characters’ odd tics and nuances, and Freeman is certainly a standout in the series (see: any of his scenes at Mulctuary Money Management). His repetitive delivery of “Jacquelyn, can you bring the Baudelaire file in here please?” alone deserves an Emmy nod.
In a bleak, anachronistic world of untrustworthy and useless adults, secret organizations, and treacherous leeches, the story has more wit and charm than it sounds.
While self-deprecating and sarcastic, Daniel Handler (the man behind the pen name Lemony Snicket), also serving as writer and executive producer, has created a setting where, despite the horrors Violet, Klaus, and Sunny face, we laugh at the dark humor and absurdity of it all.
Take, for instance, Cleo King (a bit player, but a scene-stealer) who plays Poe’s wife, Eleanora, editor-in-chief of The Daily Punctilio. “I had my star reporter write an article for the front page so that everyone will know that your home was destroyed and you’re orphans now!” she proudly exclaims, flaunting a newspaper at the dinner table in front of the Baudelaires with the blaring headline, “Baudelaire Mansion Destroyed,” thinking it would cheer them up. “Some people wait a lifetime for that!”
True to the nature and tone of the books, the series obliterates the fourth wall by poking fun at itself, subtly taking shots at the “godforsaken Nickelodeon” movie to the idea of “streaming content from the comfort of one’s home.”
Every now and then, Snicket might even stop the action to explain the meaning of a word, or provide some commentary on current social issues relating to whatever is happening. Also, devoted fans of the books should keep an eye out for various easter eggs scattered throughout.
The series has received rave reviews, with a second season (following books five through nine) in the works.
Stream Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” on Netflix.