Writing under the pseudonym "Lemony Snicket," author Daniel Handler published his first Series of Unfortunate Events novel in 1999. Twelve more books recounting the tragic story of the Baudelaire orphans, as narrated by Snicket himself, followed. A major motion picture starring Jim Carrey hit theaters in 2004, but the film’s lukewarm performance at the box office indefinitely stalled any talk of a future franchise. Until Netflix came along.
In director Barry Sonnenfeld’s enthusiastic hands, the series is an extremely faithful adaptation of the books, both in plot and its satirical tone. The eight-episode season (out Friday, January 13) covers the events of the first four novels in Handler’s series. (The author is also a credited writer on all eight episodes.) The series follows Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, orphans whose parents have died in a mysterious fire. Snicket documents the series of (unfortunate) events as the children are passed around from one negligent guardian to the next. But no one’s as nefarious as Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), the morally bankrupt villain of the story who will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Baudelaire family fortune.
But that’s what makes A Series of Unfortunate Events stand out in a sea of Chosen One adventures, fairy tales, and young-adult epics: This fanciful tale doesn’t handle its thorny material with kid gloves. Snicket’s narration constantly reminds us that the Baudelaires’ story isn’t a happy one; things go from bad to worse to catastrophically hopeless. Yet the plucky Baudelaire children find a way to persevere anyway.
“The one thing Barry was trying to get across was how all of the adults hurt the children to an extent,” newcomer Louis Hynes, who plays Klaus, told MTV News. “Whether it was done intentionally or not, they’ve all done things that have slightly messed about with the kids. So it’s interesting to see the kids put their own ideas forward and try to figure out things for themselves.”
And figure it out they do, thanks to their own extraordinary gifts. The oldest, 14-year-old Violet (Malina Weissman), is a talented inventor and optimistic problem-solver, while her inquisitive brother, 12-year-old Klaus (Hynes), loves books and research. Their infant sister, Sunny (Presley Smith, voiced by Tara Strong), with her gnarly four-tooth bite, is surprisingly the muscle of the group. (And according to Hynes, the only way to get little Smith to stop crying during takes was to give her his glasses.)
“Violet’s always looking on the bright side of things, and Klaus is always trying to find out the truth and looking at what’s wrong with things,” Weissman told MTV News. “They make a great team, and they help each other. They can never be too naïve or too negative because they have each other.”
The clever Baudelaire brood spend most of their time trying to outsmart Count Olaf, who disguises himself throughout the series in an effort to foil the Baudelaires’ happiness and well-being. Harris’s theatricality, physical comedy, and dour flourishes make the cruel count a total scene-stealer. As for his numerous disguises, Stephano (as seen in The Reptile Room) and Shirley St. Ives (The Miserable Mill) are personal favorites of Weissman and Hynes's.
“There are funny moments, and then there are the dark moments,” Weissman said, explaining the show’s brand of humor. “Like murder and deceit,” Hynes added with a smile.
It’s that balance that gives A Series of Unfortunate Events its charm. Even the bleakest of moments — the death of a parent, the loss of a mentor, the total destruction of a home — has a bit of levity. The sheer size and scope of Handler’s gloomy, gray world, aided by the cyberpunk aesthetic and ornate production design, imbues each scene with a sense of wonderment that’s utterly bewitching.
Most of the sets, designed by Academy Award–nominated production designer Bo Welch (Edward Scissorhands), only appear in one or two episodes, but the attention to detail in every scene is instantly apparent. Dr. Montgomery Montgomery’s (Aasif Mandvi) reptile room, for example, was filled with rare trinkets, old books, lizard-skin floor titles (that were never seen on-screen), and real snakes and reptiles. “I actually held one of them,” Weissman said. “It was a yellow [snake], and I put it around my neck — like Britney.” Hynes continued, “I did a scene with a chameleon, because why not?”
Then there’s Count Olaf’s decrepit mansion, a set littered with cobwebs, dust, photoshopped photos, and drab decor. An incredibly intricate seaside town — with fixtures like the Damocles Dock and the Anxious Clown restaurant — is the overcast setting for Episodes 5 and 6 (The Wide Window), while the destruction of Aunt Josephine’s (Alfre Woodard) house — and her massive library, which was stocked with real books — gave the young actors a chance to do their own stunt work.
“They put me in a harness, and I had to fly and pretend to hang off the end of a map,” Weissman said. “That was so fun. It was such a change from what we did in the first two episodes, which was a lot of standing around and being very still.”
“I got to do a backflip in a harness through a window,” Hynes added. “That was so cool.”
With so much action and intrigue, it’s easy to forget that the tale of the Baudelaire children is inherently a sad one. The adults around them are clueless and often careless; the systems set in place to protect children often fail them — and, at worst, exploit their misfortune. It’s the kind of cynical worldview that some will want to look away from — but even in the darkest of times, and after the most unfortunate experiences, the Baudelaires push on. They continue to question their circumstances and look for answers.
“That’s something Klaus is always questioning: Who should we blame for this? And should we blame someone for this?” Hynes said. “Or is this just life?”
At the end of the day, however, they persist, and they survive. There’s no message more hopeful than that, whether Mr. Snicket wants to admit it or not.