The very worst things happen to the kids in “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the new Netflix series based on the children’s books written by Daniel Handler under the Snicket pseudonym. First, the Baudelaire children — Violet, 14, Klaus, 12, and infant Sunny — find out that their parents have died in a fire that destroyed their home. Then they are moved among exploitive adult guardians. Finally they are sent to live with a vile relative — Count Olaf — who lives in a dilapidated mansion and is solely interested in collecting the huge fortune the Baudelaires will eventually inherit.
Don’t watch it, it’s too painful — or at least that’s what narrator Lemony Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton, tells us. “If you’re interested in stories with happy endings, then you’d be better off somewhere else,” he says early in the show, standing mortician-like in front of the scene like Rod Serling in “The Twilight Zone.”
But don’t listen to him. The new series, executive produced by, among others, Handler and Barry Sonnenfeld (“The Addams Family”), is a real good time, much more so than the 2004 Jim Carrey movie adaptation of the same material. It’s made with just the right amounts of mordant humor, light macabre atmosphere, pun-filled dialogue, and amusing performances to charm and engage. You probably won’t get terribly caught up in the plot lines, as the Baudelaire kids work to survive Count Olaf’s idiocy and deception. But you — and by you, I’m including children as well as adults who have a taste for fantasy — will probably relish every minute of the eight episodes that Netflix is dropping on Friday.
And anyway, the kids have it rough but they are clearly models of endurance. A lot of the humor on the show comes from the fact that the Baudelaires are highly intelligent — little geniuses, really, who know a lot about everything. They remain optimistic, fact-oriented, and resourceful, no matter how childish and ridiculous the adults around them are. Even baby Sunny is an intellectual, which we know because the show translates her mumbles and mews into subtitled sentences. They may be stuck in a dire Dickensian situation, but, given the show’s playful tone, you can sense that they will inevitably prevail. And I mean, what if their parents are . . . wait, I don’t want to spoil anything.
The biggest and best performance is by Neil Patrick Harris, who appears to be having a great time as Count Olaf. He is endless fun to watch inside a ton of makeup and prosthetics that include a hook nose and giant forehead. Count Olaf is an actor — his acting troupe of losers hang around him like a demented posse — so that Harris has the pleasure of playing not only a brazenly evil man who lives in a (beautifully photographed) pit of mold and cobwebs, but a bad actor. He makes the most of every cheesy disguise Count Olaf dons, every nasty look he shoots at the kids and at his own pals, and every bit of tragic pathos that follows him like a dustball. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable turn.
At moments, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” recalls Wes Anderson’s work, particularly the early material with the Baudelaire kids. Other times, the show evokes “The Addams Family” by Sonnenfeld, who directed four episodes of this series. But still, throughout, the show stands on its own, a wonderful, droll, silly, eccentric, atmospheric piece of work.
LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS
Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Joan Cusack, Patrick Warburton, Catherine O’Hara, Alfre Woodard, Don Johnson, Rhys Darby, Aasif Mandvi
On Netflix, first season available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.