I regret to you inform you that what you are about to read is a positive review of some very terrible things. As a critic, it is my job to put aside moral and ethical considerations and judge art on the basis of its aesthetics, a word which here means “how it looks and sounds and if it creates a coherent world.” In the case of “A Bad Beginning, Part One,” I can say that this television series has an effective and consistent look and sound. Its world is, at least for now, a coherent one, and it is populated by, so far as it is possible for me to judge, talented actors. But it is a terrible pity to see such able craftspeople (and here I include, in addition to the cast, the many lighting technicians, scriptwriters, directors, costume designers, and computer programmers who clearly spent many hours to adapt this dire saga) put their efforts to such ill ends. As a critic, I find much to praise here. But as a human being, all I can do is weep.

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Anyhoo, “A Bad Beginning, Part One” introduces us to the Baudelaire orphans, left to fend for themselves after a terrible fire destroys their home and, apparently, their parents. Violet (Malina Weissman), the eldest, has a talent for inventing useful and unexpected devices; Klaus (Louise Hynes), the middle child, enjoys reading and research; and Sunny (Presley Smith) is a baby who excels at biting things. They are all three of them delightful, and it is my sad duty to report that within minutes of the beginning of this first episode (first here being a word that implies “more to come,” oh dear), they find themselves without a home or available parent. Even worse, they are soon placed under the vile and detestable care of the malevolent and despicable Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a bad actor and worse guardian. Also, he sings.

There are a fair number of reasons to enjoy Lemony Snicket’s mordant epic A Series Of Unfortunate Events, but arguably the most important would seem the greatest challenge to adapt into another medium: Snicket’s despairing deadpan narration. Daniel Handler’s nom de plume is the secret fifth lead of the series, a background figure whose mournful commentary provides much of the works humor and charm. This version makes the smart choice of making Snicket’s presence literal, putting Patrick Warburton front and center as the investigator and sole chronicler of the Baudelaire’s misfortune. Warburton introduces the episode, and provides gray color commentary throughout—and while none of the characters acknowledge his presence, having him wander through scenes is a terrific device that helps translate on the page into narration into something both visual and evocative.

It doesn’t hurt that Warburton is up to the task, delivering his lines with a unwinking sincerity that stands out from his usual well-meaning buffoon shtick (or just buffoon, in the case of Seinfeld). The effect is striking—and takes a little getting used to. The artifice that’s a central part of the books, that feeling of something being carefully constructed in a way that may or may not be distracting us all from the real story, is on display here in many different ways, some more obvious than others, but Warburton’s performance feels key. He starts in with his opening in monologue, speaking in a soft, sad monotone that will get familiar (but not old) very quickly, and at first, you wait for him to crack a smile, or say something so obviously stupid that we get to laugh at him, but it never happens.

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The same is true for Neil Patrick Harris; as the dastardly Count Olaf, a terrible actor, wore guardian, and woefully inadequate housekeeper, Harris swallows the vulnerability that’s defined many of his best known roles and goes on a smarm offensive as comprehensive as it is odious. He’s less threatening than Jim Carrey was in the big screen version, but probably easier to take over the long term. The trick will be finding a balance between amusingly inept evil and genuine menace. Olaf striking Klaus is the most unexpected moment in the whole episode, and one of the few unhappy turns that isn’t played almost immediately for some kind of laugh. (Mr. Poe’s matter of fact explanation that Mother and Father died in a fire is one of the hour’s better jokes.)

Still, I’m not sure it will ever be possible to find Harris truly ominous in the role—even without trying to making Olaf sympathetic, there’s still concerted effort to make him more fun to watch than the looming, unpleasant oaf of the book. That’s understandable, and, at least in the first episode, the results work without being overly distracting. There’s a certain “we’re all in on the joke here” vibe, but that doesn’t undercut the real menace of the series: the adult world, with its endless indifferent catastrophes, manipulations, and bureaucratic tyranny. While Olaf serves as the main focus of the Baudelaire’s woe, he’s not particularly good at villainy. He’s just successful, because everything else is designed to make things easy for him.

This the darkest element in Snicket’s books, and so far at least, the television version seems determined to follow in their footsteps. It’s not enough that the Baudelaires are left in the care of a vain oaf obsessed with stealing the family fortune. There’s also Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), the executor of the estate, who is, in his way, even more unsettling than Olaf. At least there’s no gap between Olaf’s intentions and his results: he’s selfish and evil and behaves accordingly. Mr. Poe means well, but only well enough. His tactless delivery of bad news is only the beginning—at almost every step, he fails the Baudelaires, even as he tries to do right by them. And his family offers no support whatsoever.

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And they’re not the only ones. The only other friendly adult the children meet, Justice Strauss (a perfectly cast Joan Cusack), lives across the street and wants nothing more than to have children of her own to raise. But even she falls under Olaf’s spell. The real power of the Series Of Unfortunate Events books, whatever their flaws (and they do have flaws) is a willingness to present a reality where even well-meaning adults are no guarantee of safety. For anyone who ever wondered if the world really was unfair, mean-spirited, and awful, this is a story that says, “Yes.” And not just once, but over and over and over again.

There’s something refreshing about that, but it also presents a hard line to walk, one the source material didn’t always do successfully. At a certain point, misery becomes tedious, and if this really was just an endless succession of bad things happening to good people, it would quickly lose its appeal. The key is the humor, and the resourcefulness of the Baudelaires. While Violet, Klaus, and Sunny aren’t the funniest characters on the show, their determination, intelligence, and love for one another is what holds everything else together. As despairing as Snicket’s commentary is, and as bad as their situation gets, the kids are alright, and their continued well-being, even under the direst of circumstances, is what keeps this from being the sort of black comedy where you wince as much as you laugh.

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But all of that is getting ahead of ourselves. “A Bad Beginning, Part One” is a fine way to start such a tremulous tale, and the grasp the creative team has on their material is promising for fans of the books, as well as for people who like their hour-long entertainments as dry and dour as possible. Because make no mistake: this is sordid, sorry, and significantly sinister. But if you’re the kind of person who goes in for that sort of thing—and god help you if you are—you’re in for a treat.

Stray observations

  • So, Ma and Pa Baudelaire aren’t dead—are, in fact, being played by Colbie Smulders and Will Arnett, who we see in a brief scene at the end of the hour as they’re being whisked off in a prison car to an unknown location. Neither seem overly concerned at their predicament, although they are worried about the children. It’s an interesting choice to show them alive this early on. It adds to a sense of larger mystery that the series is already trying to cultivate, but it also undercuts some of the drama of the Baudelaires’ plight. Orphans-who-aren’t-really-orphans don’t have the same emotional pull. (As others have pointed out, we don’t actually know for certain who Smulders and Arnett are, but since they’re listed in the credits as “Mother” and “Father,” we’ll go with that for now.)
  • Adding to the mystery, Klaus discovers a curious object in the remains of the Baudelaire mansion with a symbol engraved on one end. That symbol just happens to be tattooed on one of Olaf’s ankles. Clearly, something’s going on. It’s a mystery the books only came to gradually (one of the major faults of the series is how long Handler clings to the same structure; it’s four or five entries in before he starts changing things up), and introducing it this early could help to keep things from getting stale. Or it could get overly cluttered in unimpressive ways. Fingers crossed.
  • Freeman is wonderfully useless as Poe.
  • “Thank you, but it’s a perfect morning to go to the beach.” “It’s gray and cloudy!” “That’s what makes it perfect.”
  • “Do you know what this is?” “It looks like a list.” “Wrong! It’s a list.” (This is an old joke, and one the show uses more than once, but it makes me laugh every time.)
  • In addition to everything else, the fact that Justice Strauss asks the children if they know what a certain word means without assuming they don’t marks her as a good person. (It also helps that, for once, Klaus doesn’t actually know the definition.)
  • Reviews will be posted every other day until we reach the end of this horrid season. Expect the next on Sunday.

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