As a fan of both the original book series and the 2004 movie (yes, I’m aware that puts me in the minority), I had high hopes that Netflix’s new show following the dreadful lives of the Baudelaire orphans would knock it out of the park.
While the first season isn’t quite a foul ball, I wouldn’t call it a home run either.
It is interesting to watch a show where some of the performances succeed and others fail miserably. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, the despicable and terribly untalented actor who follows the orphans from guardian to guardian. Most of the titular unfortunate events in the story are caused by Count Olaf.
Playing Count Olaf should be every actor’s dream come true. He’s evil. He’s creepy. And he constantly dons costumes, wigs and make-up to disguise himself as completely different people. There is so much potential for humor and creep-factor, but Harris disappoints by playing Olaf as kind of a jerk rather than a disturbingly evil and slimy low life after the orphan’s fortune. It’s too subtle, too lackluster. There are even times when, underneath the hair and makeup, you can see Harris raising his brows and pouting his lips in the douche-bag-puppy-dog face that made him a household name. It feels like Harris is trying to be cute and remind us all why we love him so much. I sense a lack of commitment or at the very least a lack of consistency.
Not every performance in the show is great, but none fail worse than his.
Another disappointment is the series of unfortunate visual effects. I’ll give Netflix a little bit of break on this one. Maybe they haven’t really figured out how to sparingly use graphics. The cityscapes, fires and odd steam punk inventions are just as distracting as Harris’ perpetual pretty boy smirk. Both serve as unwelcome reminders that the world we’re seeing is fake.
At this point, it probably seems like I hated the series. Luckily, there are some stand out supporting roles that forgive the disappointing Count Olaf and amateur visual effects.
Joan Cusack is perfect as Justice Strauss. She’s nervous and compulsive. She’s sheepish and odd. She’s socially inept but unparalleled in her scholarship. But more than anything else, she is undeniably loveable. Even though I knew how it all would end, I couldn’t help myself from secretly hoping they would find a way to keep Justice Strauss around for just a few more episodes.
Just as I began mourning the brevity of Cusack’s time onscreen, I was greeted with another standout performance from Aasif Mandvi as Uncle Monty. He’s genuine and smart, if not equally quirky (but in very different ways) as Justice Strauss. The guardians have always been my favorite part of the series. All of them are a part of some secret society of eccentric academics, which the books refrain from explaining too heavily. The show, however, puts a much stronger emphasis on the secret organization of bizarre, smarty pants individuals that links the guardians together. Alfre Woodard as Aunt Josephine also stands out as a “fierce and formidable woman” who is afraid of literally everything (including door knobs, microwaves and real estate agents) .
Without Cusack, Mandvi and Woodard to carry the show, I’m not sure I would’ve kept telling Netflix, “Yes, I’m still watching.”
My favorite performance is probably the most divisive, according to conversations I’ve had with other fans of the book: Patrick Warburton’s portrayal of Lemony Snicket. Keeping in tune with the books, Warburton often interrupts to address the audience directly. Instead of playing up the sad, starving artist persona of the books, Warburton portrays Snicket as a matter-of-fact investigative journalist. This deadpan, sometimes grim delivery balances the more fanciful world the characters inhabit.
Despite some major grievances, I enjoyed the show. By keeping true to the suburban gothic, anachronistic and oddly academic tones that carried the books to every best seller list, Netflix made a show well worth watching. And by expanding the mysterious plotline, introducing new characters and previously unseen events, the show builds on what made the books great in a way that engages those who think they already know the ending.
And by showing us the plight of these poor orphans, forced to deal with grossly incompetent adults making life altering (and ill-informed) decisions on their behalf, Netflix has made a show that rings with significance today.
Now if only they could recast Harris.