How confident must a show be to name its opening tune, which begs you to find something better to do with your time, “Look Away”?
In the case of the wacked-out, highly stylized and thoroughly enjoyable “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” that confidence is well-earned. Now streaming on Netflix, the eight episodes cover four of the books supposedly written by one Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton), but in fact written by Daniel Handler, who also handles most of the writing on the series.
Snickets, as any recent parent should know, is investigating and relating the fates of the three Baudelaire children, whose wealthy parents “perish” when their home burns to the ground early in the first episode.
The children are gifted. Fourteen-year-old Viola (Malina Weissman) is a wiz at building things. Twelve-year-old Klaus (Louis Hynes) is a research expert. And baby Sunny (Presley Smith) can bite anything into any shape while having tremendous people skills (considering she doesn’t speak English yet).
The orphans are told of their parents’ demise by a constantly coughing and clueless banker named Poe (K. Todd Freeman), who is under the wrong impression that the Baudelaires are supposed to go live with a (fake ) distant relative, the actor Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris, having grand fun). Unfortunately, after Poe leaves, Count Olaf turns out to be an abusive host who’s only out for one thing: The inheritance the Baudelaires will eventually receive.
To this end Olaf tries to marry Viola in the first two chapters (she only needs a guardian’s approval; he’s her guardian, he approves). When the children escape and move on, Count Olaf and a troupe of fellow actors/goofy bad guys pursue them. Each new book brings a different ridiculous disguise for Count Olaf and outrageous predicaments for the Baudelaires.
Lemony Snicket provides plot points, interpretations and grammar lessons along the way, walking in and out of scenes like Rod Serling in an absurdist “Twilight Zone.” The eye-popping art direction is delightful by way of Wes Anderson, Barry Sonnenfeld (who produced the far less successful Snicket movie) directs half the episodes and fine guest stars — Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, Alfre Woodard, even Don Johnson — go bonkers along the way.
Pay no attention to Lemony Snicket, kids (and parents too). “A Series of Unfortunate Events” makes it downright difficult to “Look Away.”
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic
‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’