'A Series of Unfortunate Events' Review: "A Bad Beginning" is mediocre and middling

A Series of Unfortunate Events, be it the book series by Lemony Snicket (né Daniel Handler), the film version or the new Netflix adaptation, is an acquired taste. In the books, the story of the Baudelaire children and their increasingly dire circumstances plays with a quirky, disaffected edge. In the movie, the rushed pace and Harry Potter-esque sheen makes the story tonally bizarre.

The new TV adaptation, released on Netflix Friday, gets the tone of the books more accurately, with stilted delivery and a dark, gauzy filter over everything. But despite a faithful adaptation that feels generally correct, the series' first story, "A Bad Beginning," never quite clicks into place, leaving us with a fairly middling final product.

(Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for the first two episodes of Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events.)

"A Bad Beginning," broken up in this miniseries into two episodes, serves as a prologue for the series. Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire's parents are seemingly killed in a fire that burns down their family home, leaving them to be adopted by a distant cousin named Count Olaf. As played by Neil Patrick Harris, Olaf is a cartoonish, sinister man of the theater, damned and determined to get his hands on the Baudelaires' fortune.

He hatches a plot to force Violet, a teenage girl, into marrying him, thus giving him access to the money and the ability to dispatch the children. Suffice it to say he fails, because there are six episodes left of the season (not to mention 12 more books) with plenty of plot to fill. But the first story on its own ends fine enough — if not quite happily. There's very little happy in store for the Baudelaires, after all.

Louis Hynes and Neil Patrick Harris in 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'Netflix

Speaking of our protagonist trio: If there's any clear reason why "A Bad Beginning" doesn't work, it's them. Violet, Klaus and Sunny are played ably, if a bit roughly, by Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith, respectively. The problem is more in the characterization; they're flat and affectless characters by design, but surrounded by colorful creatures, some played by big stars. (Joan Cusack plays the friendly Justice Strauss.) Quite frankly, they can't keep up — which is unfortunate, since they're our anchors in the story.

Harris, on the other hand, is a goddamn delight, easily doing his best work since Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. What so many of his roles since then haven't gotten is that his master-of-ceremonies aesthetic works best when juxtaposed with a more complex character. (Gone Girl cast him as a pure menace, going too far the other way.) His Count Olaf is funny and outlandish, but he has a clear edge of danger to him.

The other big stars, so far in small roles, are Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders. Perplexingly, they're playing the Baudelaire parents — roles that did not exist in the books outside of memory. They appear for a couple of minutes at the end of both parts of "A Bad Beginning," and are very much alive after the Baudelaire manor fire. This marks the series' biggest break with the source material — time will tell if their story adds or distracts from the main plot.

Neil Patrick Harris in 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'Netflix

A Series of Unfortunate Events has a lot going for it in its first two installments, but it's missing something to tie it all together. The problem is mostly tonal; even if it's true to the book series, starting the show with a song imploring you to "look away" makes everything feel a bit forced. Of course you're not going to look away, no matter how much the theme (or Patrick Warburton, playing author Lemony Snicket himself in deep-voiced glory) asks you to. We get it: This is, quite literally, a series of unfortunate events.

If nothing else can be said for it, take it to heart that the Netflix series is a drastic improvement on the film adaptation. But taken together, they make an effective argument that A Series of Unfortunate Events may be unadaptable.