“Look away, look away,” the show’s theme goes. “The Bad Beginning: Part One” starts off with Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) in a dim tunnel, delivering an intro with a lighted match. The flame exhausts — long pause. He lights it again, to resume his monologue. This intro hints at everything A Series of Unfortunate Events will be: bleak, self-aware, and up to par with the Brett Helquist aesthetic. And although Warburton speaks in a soothing monotone, you just know the show would be anything but.
The three Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Sunny and Klaus are sent to the beach on the gloomiest day, setting the tone for all the unfortunate things yet to come. As Warburton goes through the kids’ resumé of sorts, the scene cuts to a flashback of Klaus and Violet at the library in their home, wherein the former recites a quote he says he doesn’t quite get: “Happiness is beneficial to the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.” In a New York Times interview, Snicket has famously revealed that he’s never read Proust (“There are episodes of The Golden Girls I’ve seen a dozen times, and I haven’t cracked open Proust.”). And so the series of inside jokes begins; harmless if you don’t get them, rad if you do.
The first glimpse of Count Olaf in his tower paints him as menacing and larger-than-life. When the children meet him, sans socks, he turns out to be a has-been loser who treats kids like slaves. The viewer knows this, but the children, of course, have no idea that he is just a sad, sad human being. Neil Patrick Harris completely transforms into his character, you almost forget it’s him save for the times he deadpans jokes.
The show (developed by Mark Hudis, Elementary, True Blood, That ‘70s Show, and Barry Sonnenfeld, Notes from the Underbelly, Pushing Daisies) stays true to Snicket’s writing style. Fans of the books will love how it remains quotable, in its trademark absurdity: “Hard earned money: the most important substance on Earth, besides applause and lip balm,” Olaf says.
As far as the first episode goes, Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack) is a meta-ray of light, her positive presence in the Baudelaire children’s lives portrayed in hyperbolic ways: the judge wig reminds you that she is a symbol of all that’s good and fair, her garden blooms with what look like cherry blossoms, her white picket fence a stark contrast to Count Olaf’s mangled mansion. Don’t get too attached though, A Series of Unfortunate Events is like Game of Thrones sugar-coated. Nothing good stays good, nothing good stays at all.
Watch with suspicion always. Watch with what Snicket wrote in mind: “Strange as it may seem, I still hope for the best, even though the best, like an interesting piece of mail, so rarely arrives, and even when it does it can be lost so easily.” Watch with hope, but expect the worst.
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A Series of Unfortunate Events is rated PG and is now streaming on Netflix.