Is there anything that Neil Patrick Harris cannot do?
In recent years, the versatile entertainer has wowed audiences as a sitcom star, as a Broadway headliner and as an awards-show emcee. But wait until everyone gets a load of him as Count Olaf.
In Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, a wonderfully weird series premiering Friday on Netflix, Harris delivers a scene-stealing over-the-top performance in the grand tradition of such charismatic chameleons as Peter Sellers, Jim Carrey and Johnny Depp.
You’ll have to look twice to recognize Harris underneath two-and-a-half hours of makeup and prosthetics that include a pointy nose, unibrow, two-piece wig, goatee and pale skin.
But it’s not just the physical transformation that will amaze and confound viewers. Harris also captures the essence of this eccentric and odious character, made famous in a series of 13 children’s novels by Daniel Handler (who was writing as Lemony Snicket).
“Your first impression of me may be that I am a terrible person,” Olaf declares in the first of eight Season 1 episodes, “but you haven’t the faintest idea!”
A Series of Unfortunate Events is the story of three children — 14-year-old Violet Baudelaire, 12-year-old Klaus and baby Sunny — who are orphaned after their wealthy parents die in a fire. The children are sent to live with Count Olaf, a distant cousin who hatches a vile scheme to claim their inherited fortune.
“Count Olaf is, quite honestly, just a horrible person,” Harris says. “It’s called A Series of Unfortunate Events due in great part to him.
“He realizes quickly that they have a lot of money. If he can only find a way to get rid of the children or marry the children or somehow become their guardian, then he has access to that.”
The Baudelaires (played by Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes and Presley Smith) are resourceful enough and resilient enough, however, to survive every nefarious plot that Olaf can throw at them.
That said, there is almost never a moment of joy in their unfortunate lives.
In fact, narrator Lemony Snicket (played by deadpan Patrick Warburton) informs us right from the get-go, “If you are interested in stories with a happy ending, that story is streaming elsewhere.”
Nevertheless, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a delight to behold, chock-full of creative visuals, colorful performances and crazy adventures.
This isn’t the first adaptation of the books, which has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide.
Jim Carrey starred as Count Olaf in a 2004 feature film that struggled to compress the plots of the first three books into less than two hours’ running time.
But now, within the framework of a TV series, the distinctly different stories of every book have been more richly developed. In the first season of eight episodes, two episodes apiece are devoted to the first four novels (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window and The Miserable Mill).
The first four episodes are directed by executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld, who previously gave us cinematically eccentric worlds with Men in Black, The Addams Family and TV’s Pushing Daisies.
“What Netflix does so well is it allows the creative process to happen without many constraints,” says Harris, who captured Emmy nominations for his work in How I Met Your Mother and a Tony win for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. “They let us create this world, which I find just visually exquisite.”
Harris also likes the fact that viewers will be allowed to binge on all eight episodes in one marathon viewing if that’s how they wish to experience the series.
“You get to choose how you watch them, not unlike reading a book,” he says. “I think Netflix plus A Series of Unfortunate Events is a really good marriage.”
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
- Available for streaming Friday