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How Netflix made A Series of Unfortunate Events, its first great TV for families

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Joe Lederer / Netflix

Netflix’s first major investment in really good television for kids is here. The first eight-episode season of A Series of Unfortunate Events is now streaming on the platform, and it might be the best original family series the platform has debuted yet. It’s certainly one of the most unconventional. “I don’t mean to profess any originality to which I am not entitled,” says author Daniel Handler, the show’s head writer. “But I haven’t found too many models for this show.”

Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards, premiered less than four years ago, though it feels like it’s been much longer. Since then, the platform has filled out a formidable roster of original programming for grown-ups, but family content has been lackluster — mostly treacly garbage like Fuller House and a Richie Rich reboot. Brian Wright, VP of Family Content for Netflix, told The Verge that the platform’s broad goal is to make family shows that are “just as good” as adult Netflix originals like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. To that end, they reached out to Handler (pen name Lemony Snicket) to adapt his best-selling children’s books. The first people they signed on to work on the project were Handler and director Barry Sonnenfeld, who made the Men In Black and Addams Family movies, and was originally slated to direct the 2004 movie Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Wright says Handler’s books were Sonnenfeld’s “favorite book series ever,” and emphasizes that hiring him to direct was key to what they hoped would be a “remarkably faithful adaptation.” This whispers at an understanding of a second key audience for the show — viewers in their 20s and 30s who grew up reading Handler’s books. “We’re looking to match projects up with passionate fan bases within the services,” Wright says. “With a known property, one of the challenges can be staying loyal to the tone of the original.”

To backtrack: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a wildly popular anomaly among children’s books. It somehow found its legs at the same time as the Harry Potter series, and served the same readers a hearty dose of weird, cynical, bleak humor. The 13 books, published from 1999 to 2006, are dark and rueful, obsessed with language and with libraries as sacred spaces. The central battle is as clear-cut a fight between good vs. evil as anything else written for middle schoolers, but with an added sense that the people reading the books should expect to encounter the same injustices in their own daily lives.

Though the story starts small, with a series of terrible things happening to three sibling orphans, it gradually expands to a global conspiracy: the good guys are bold and bookish nerds, and the bad guys are greedy, narcissistic anti-intellectuals. Supplementary materials like a fake “unauthorized autobiography” of Snicket and a book of letters from a mysterious character named Beatrice, are full of half-clues about the conspiracy, designed to drive inquisitive preteens up the wall. When Nickelodeon and Paramount tried to adapt the books, they only completed one movie, covering the first three installments. The conspiracy, the most interesting part of Handler’s novels, isn’t part of the 2004 film.

The movie version isn’t bad (Meryl Streep is great in it, and the cinematography is pre-Oscar Emmanuel Lubezki), but the story is left raggedly unfinished. It’s one in a slew of popular YA book series that failed to launch film franchises and were left hanging in the early 2000s (The Golden Compass, Eragon, Inkheart, City of Ember, etc.), though abandoning these franchises after one movie comes off as slightly less embarrassing than dropping Percy Jackson after two films, or Chronicles of Narnia after three.

Joe Lederer / Netflix

The behind the scenes of the 2004 film was choppy from start to finish. Sonnenfeld was initially signed to direct, but balked about 10 months before filming. He hired Handler to adapt his own novels for the screen, but Handler was fired eight drafts later when the production changed hands to get extra financing from DreamWorks. Handler says “corporate shakeups” at Paramount in 2008 hurt the series’ chances, and Silberling notes that the child actors from the first film were already too old for a sequel by 2009.

The idea of an expensive Netflix adaptation with the author and original director is odd. It’s like Netflix is trying to create a parallel universe where the 2004 film happened as originally intended. Handler says he was hesitant, but Netflix execs convinced him that the episodic, bingeable format was ideal for the series. They promised him creative freedom, which he considers a result of the subscription format. “They’re always trying to find an audience for Netflix, but then once they have a Netflix audience, they just try to figure out who might like what show. As opposed to [a movie studio] getting nervous about “Oh, we have to sell this to the whole world right now!’”

And they’re right: top to bottom, this adaptation plays off the strengths of the original books, and it takes perfect advantage of the benefits of the Netflix platform.

The series is structured more like a book series than a conventional television show. Each episode is about an hour long, and each book in the series gets two episodes to tell its story. Effectively, the show resets every two hours, with a fresh round of exposition. That conceit might be obnoxious if each new set wasn’t so gorgeous and weird. Handler told The Verge, “I don’t know of a Netflix show that takes its structure so directly from source material, to which it stays very loyal.” When asked if any format besides streaming could have worked for this series, Handler suggested “Butoh theater? A sequence of Victorian flower arrangements?”

The sets are designed by longtime Tim Burton collaborator Bo Welch. Though Wright declined to comment on the show’s budget, other than saying, “We place our bets on the best storytellers and talent,” the production costs must have been high. The sets are so beautiful, Handler asks that you try not to watch the show on a laptop — ”Project it on the side of a building in an empty lot. Cover your whole house with a sheet. There’s a lot of ways to go about it.” The talent is big-budget, too, with Neil Patrick Harris, Joan Cusack, Will Arnett, Cobie Smulders, Catherine O’Hara, Patrick Warburton, and (for some reason) Don Johnson in recurring roles.

Joe Lederer / Netflix

Casting Neil Patrick Harris as the theatrical, villainous Count Olaf is a no-brainer — he’s well-known by a bunch of different demographics, from grandmothers who remember Doogie Howser, M.D. to dads who watched How I Met Your Mother to teens who saw him hang out with Harold and Kumar. But in particular, his time in Joss Whedon’s Dark Horse crew makes him an easy fit for a role as a singing villain who has to be scary (but not too scary!) and funny. (But not laughable!) As the titular character in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, he made a weird move for someone of his generation — the one from classic TV sweetheart to internet sensation. There’s an obvious intuitive math to casting him in a streaming-only show, and he sings more than once in the first season. (Handler says he’s “neck-deep” in writing season two, and thinking about more Count Olaf musical numbers.)

Netflix has long been considered the province of digital natives (Dr. Horrible fans and millennials who read the Snicket books) — but entire families are digital natives now. A show that families can watch together, with the added bonus of a 20-something fan base, is excellent business for Netflix. “There’s plenty you can find on Netflix to keep your kid busy,” Handler says, “but there’s not a lot for many different ages to watch together, and that’s what we were going for here.”

Wright says Netflix counts its summer smash Stranger Things as part of its growing “young adult” roster, and credits it with “validating [the] theory that family content can be great content.” This month, the platform will start production on a Lost in Space remake, another cross-generational project that Wright says is such a huge undertaking, it won’t premiere until 2018. Spotlight director Tom McCarthy is also working on a series based on the 2007 young adult novel 13 Reasons Why — a family-oriented drama that Selena Gomez has signed on to produce.

Going forward, A Series of Unfortunate Events is an even better launching point for family content than House of Cards was for original content. The writing is just as strong, and the new show has an even clearer point of view and sense of purpose — as well as an understanding of the nature of the platform that just wasn’t available in 2013.

Handler says one of the things they spent the most time thinking about was all the different ways someone could consume the show, and how to make sure it worked every way: “If you’ve been in school for 10 days and your parents are letting you watch episode three now, what does that look like? Or you went out with your friends over the weekend and now it’s Sunday night and you’re ready to watch a bunch of Netflix, what do you need to be replugged into the story? If you’re watching it all in a row, what makes it not annoying?”

The series was storyboarded with a small group first — just Handler, Sonnenfeld, writer’s assistant Aziza Aba Butain, and a few others, who started by mapping out all the stories from the books, plus some small new stories they wanted to add in. After that, Handler says, there was a larger room with more people looking at the story, “and then, like a life, it was a smaller room again.”

This Series of Unfortunate Events is a faithful adaptation, but it’s also a classic cliffhanging Netflix gambit. That starts with the introduction of the global conspiracy known in the books as “VFD.” The conspiracy doesn’t emerge until the back half of the written series, but viewers see a lot more than its edges within the first two hours of Netflix’s adaptation. The choice makes repeat viewing rewarding, and imbues binge-watching with a sense of urgency — with dropped hints and a spiral of a plot not that different from Stranger Things.

Joe Lederer / Netflix

What makes the show, as Handler says, “not-annoying,” is a lot of what made the original series so charming. The young characters are ingenuitive and precocious, which means the writing can’t be lazy, or it will ring false. They live in a visually fascinating world with intricate machinery and technicolor clothes. The series is a little dated, in that its noir and steampunk overtones have gone in and out of style three or four times since the books were published. But when asked how he thought people would receive the series 15 years after the source material’s heyday, Handler said, “Frankly, I think if you’re always a virtuous person, then you’re always interested in literature, and you’re always experiencing a challenge in the modern world.”

The most striking similarity between Handler’s original project and the Netflix adaptation is that it’s a major investment in the idea that kids aren’t stupid, and they want entertainment that challenges them with complex ideas. We’ll have to wait to see whether Netflix declares the investment a good one, but it’s a great start. It may be Netflix’s best original series yet, and it’s meant for everyone.