STORY WRITTEN BY ROB LOWMAN
Southern California News Group
The theme song for Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” available today (Jan. 13, 2017), warns the audience to “Look away!”
But do look.
The eight-part series, based on the popular children’s books by Daniel Handler, is delightfully weird or weirdly delightful, depending. The hourlong show can be both light and unexpectedly dark.
Handler has published his 13 novels under the pen name Lemony Snicket, who is the narrator of the books but also a character in the series about the Baudelaire children: 14-year-old Violet (Malina Weissman), her younger brother Klaus (Louis Hynes), and baby Sunny (Presley Smith), who possesses razor-sharp teeth.
“In this story, there is not only no happy ending but no happy beginning — and few happy things in the middle,” ominously intones Lemony, played with a perfect understated drollery by Patrick Warburton.
We meet the children going to the beach on a gray day, perfect for them because no one goes. They are smart, quirky, precocious, inventive and quote James Brown and Albert Einstein, although the series is set in some nebulous time that echoes mid-20th century.
Before they get home, though, the children are intercepted by a banker (K. Todd Freeman). He informs them their parents have perished in a fire.
Since the now-orphans have no close relatives, the banker seems to have been conned into turning them over to a distant relative they have never heard of — the villainous Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris). His motive for taking them in to his dilapidated house is that the children are set to inherit a fortune when Violet turns 18.
It isn’t long before Olaf, an over-the-top actor always working on his craft, sets off a series of “unfortunate events” to prevent Violet and the others from ever getting old enough to reach their inheritance. He has them living in squalor and turns them into slaves.
However, the orphans are far too ingenious and resilient and Olaf far too sure of himself not to trip up on his little plots. The count is something of a Wile E. Coyote, except he preens and overacts, but Harris never lets the character become too cartoonish. In fact, the series can quickly be brought back to reality, such as when Olaf delivers a hard slap to Klaus.
Handler himself wrote all eight episodes, which comprise his first four books. The author had written the original script for the 2004 movie adaptation with Jim Carrey as Olaf, which was originally supposed to be directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.
Sonnenfeld (“TheAddams Family”) is back on the series as a producer and also doing much of the directing, giving “Unfortunate Events” the slightly off-kilter, slightly magical world it needs to flourish.
What has always stood out about Handler’s books is that they approach children as if they are smart — and then help make them smarter. If it throws out a concept that they might not know, it explains it with humor. The books may have been aimed for reading pre-teens originally, but the series proves its worth for all ages.
Contact Rob Lowman at email@example.com or @RobLowman1 on Twitter.