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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that A Series of Unfortunate Events is a TV series based on the popular books by Lemony Snicket (the pseudonym of Daniel Handler). The show dedicates two episodes to each of the series' first four books, allowing time for character and plot development. This could go either way -- for kids and tweens who love spine-tinglers and a hefty dose of fantasy, it does a fantastic job bringing the characters to life; for younger kids who don't like devious characters plotting against innocents, it will be a bit too scary. The show begins with the possibly distressing premise that orphaned children would be delivered to such an obviously unfit guardian as Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) and continues through a series of adults who somehow never realize the kids' actual plight. Even so, many moments celebrate the resilient human spirit in the orphans' ability to make the best of these situations. Violence is rare (Olaf slaps Klaus in one scene), and language is limited to some name-calling such as "brat." Bottom line? This is a know-your-kid situation that may require you to screen each episode before your kids watch.
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What's the story?
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS introduces the Beaudelaire children -- Violet (Malina Weissman), Kraus (Louis Hynes), and baby Sunny (Presley Smith, voiced by Tara Strong) -- whose life of wealth and privilege ends with the death of their parents. They're shuttled off to their closest living relative, the devious washed-up thespian Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris). Upon learning that the children's sizable inheritance is safeguarded until Violet comes of age, Count Olaf sets about making his wards' lives outright miserable while they're dependent on him, but these inventive and learned children manage to find small bits of happiness nonetheless. As the story evolves, the mystery of their parents' death also takes curious twists and turns, changing the Beaudelaire orphans' fortunes.
Is it any good?
For a story that begins with a main character's fervent warning to viewers to "look away" lest the frightful show utterly wreck their lives, it leaves you wanting more with each episode's end. The cast is tremendous in virtually every role, culminating in Neil Patrick Harris' delightful performance as dastardly Count Olaf and the trademark deadpan delivery of Patrick Warburton as drop-in narrator Lemony Snicket. Even baby Sunny manages to dominate her scenes despite speaking in babble that only her siblings can understand. And with a supporting cast that includes Catherine O'Hara, Joan Cusack, and Will Arnett, you won't be disappointed in the performances.
This adaptation dedicates two episodes -- for a total of 90-plus minutes -- to each of the 13 books in the written series, so there's no sense of rush as the story's mysteries evolve. With ample time to get to know the characters and the plot, there's much opportunity to develop deep affection for some characters and earnest resentment (always deserved) for others. The macabre tale of unfortunate orphans' bad luck is tempered with humor (Harris excels at this) and sweet personalities, but the fact that the story is built on the idea of adults taking advantage of children makes it a better choice for tweens than younger kids.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the degree to which A Series of Unfortunate Events conveys the story's creepiness. Are there any real scares in the story, or is it mostly a collection of surprises and mysteries? How does humor offset the sometimes more serious tone?
If you've read the books, how does this interpretation compare? Were the characters as you imagined them? In general, do you prefer stories in the written form or acted? How does each format allow for an artistic license the other does not?
What examples of perseverance do you see in this story? How are we affected by our circumstances? Are we defined by them or by our ability to cope with them?
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