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Netflix’s New Not So “Unfortunate” Series

By Lilith Martirosyan

Netflix’s recent release of their take on “A Series of Unfortunate Events” has been greatly anticipated by fans who were disappointed by the 2004 movie adaptation. However, despite the discrepancies inherent in the book-to-television translation, Netflix effectively captures the eccentric world of Lemony Snicket (played in the series by Patrick Warburton), the author and narrator of the novel’s tale of misfortune, through its juxtaposition of the Baudelaire orphans’ innocent naïveté with Count Olaf’s sinister, greedy ways. Within the eight hour-long episodes covering the first four novels, viewers who read the books may feel a sense of nostalgia, as it seems as though the script quite literally follows the book word-for-word, but the show’s later episodes reveal minor flaws in the protagonists’ characters and appearances.

The series begins with a mysterious fire that destroys the Baudelaire mansion. The protagonists — Violet, Klaus and Sunny — are rendered orphans with the supposed death of their parents during the fire. Alas, this is only the beginning of a series of unfortunate events that follows them. The next was their placement under the care of Count Olaf, (played by Neil Patrick Harris), the story’s antagonist.

Snicket describes Olaf as a peculiar-looking individual with a thin build, a single eyebrow and eyes that looked both furious and hungry, capturing his villainous demeanor. However, the books’ readers can clearly categorize Harris’ portrayal of the Count as simply rude, arrogant and even comedic. It is hard to label the first two episodes, dubbed “The Bad Beginning,” as nothing short of a comedy meant for children, as Olaf sings and dances with his theater troupe. It is hard for Harris to shake his previous role as the ridiculous and charming Barney from “How I Met Your Mother,” but he delves into a darker side of his character when he strikes Klaus Baudelaire to the ground after a day of drinking and his consistent threats of murder that flow off his tongue with ease.

Regardless, viewers are left to wonder if Harris will be able to fully capture his twisted alter ego as the series progresses. Olaf does begin to take on a less foolish role in the subsequent episodes, but people may continue to find it difficult to separate Harris’ previous work from this new character.

The remaining cast follows similar deviations that, when analyzed, represent current social issues prevalent in society. For instance, Arthur Poe, a banker in charge of the Baudelaire fortune, and Uncle Monty, the children’s guardian in “The Reptile Room,” are played by actors of African-American and Indian descent, respectively. However, the books’ covers and illustrations depict both as light-skinned, chubby individuals. Such inconsistencies may be viewed as incautious attention to the book’s minor details by the show’s creators, but, in fact, exhibit two key ideas.

First, the physical descriptions in Snicket’s books are written as a combination of both the Baudelaires’ and his own observations. Snicket recounts the key features of the main characters, such as Olaf’s unibrow, Mr. Poe’s hoarse cough, or Uncle Monty’s enthusiasm for coconut cream pie, but fails to specifically mention any hints to race and ethnicity. This is meant to mirror childhood innocence before the adoption of societal prejudice. The books themselves showcase the children’s individual development from a dependent state to an independent one upon the realization of adults’ blindness to obvious threats and their ability to be easily persuaded by fanciful language.

Second, with this tolerance in mind, the show’s creators utilize the orphans’ own purity to cast consistent diversity throughout the series without being chastised for their inability to follow the book’s true story. The series’ previous adaptation featured an all-white cast, but the inclusion of various ethnicities in this casting selection promotes the idea of interracial marriage and the variations in lineage that may result. Although the series fails to specify its exact time and location, Netflix’s understanding of the story puts it well ahead of its time.

The succeeding episodes after the humorous introduction take on a more serious and melancholy mood similar to that of the novel. The minor flaws in capturing Snicket’s quirky, dark humor that was intended for children, the excessive comedic interruptions during moments of intended gravity and the ethnic diversity of the cast found within the show are apparent to one who has read the series, but are not so profound as to cause immediate disdain to the show. With the identification of Lemony Snicket’s own understanding of society’s power to influence the character development of youthful individuals, viewers are left in a state of awe at Netflix’s ability to effectively capture “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”