The new Netflix rendition of A Series of Unfortunate Events is delightful, a word which here means “much better than the 2004 movie and arguably better than the original books.” It’s accessible and engaging to hardcore fans and novices alike. But even if you are a hardcore fan, the last book came out a decade ago. You’re probably rusty on its finer details, and you might be wondering what the deal is with Neil Patrick Harris’s unibrowed character. Here’s everything you need to know about the dastardly villain Count Olaf.
The series follows the trials and tribulations of the three Baudelaire orphans: Violet, who is a steampunk-engineering prodigy; Klaus, who is basically a miniature version of Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and the infant Sunny, who has razor-sharp teeth. After their parents die in a mysterious fire, they’re sent to live with Count Olaf, who is either their third cousin four times removed or fourth cousin three times removed. Nobody seems to know, least of all the banker Mr. Poe, who is entrusted with situating them in a new home.
Played by Neil Patrick Harris, Count Olaf is essentially a more evil version of How I Met Your Mother’s Barney. He’s an unsuccessful and abysmally bad actor who lives in a large, decaying house, has visions of grandiosity, and a small army of henchmen who follow his every order. He also has no patience for children, as it quickly comes to light that he only took the Baudelaires in as a means of getting his hands on their fortune — which they’ll inherit when the fourteen-year-old Violet turns eighteen.
After the children escape his clutches, he follows them to their subsequent homes, using his “acting” skills to don elaborate disguises. Over the course of the eight-episode first season, Olaf poses as an ambiguously accented reptile expert named Stephano who wears coke-bottle glasses; a marble-mouthed sailor named Captain Sham; and last but most memorable, a buxom receptionist named Shirley.
The children always see through his disguises, but for the most part, the adults around them are oblivious. He’s a villain who is simultaneously comedic and cruel, as he’s not afraid to get lethal. As the story slowly reveals, Count Olaf is connected to a wider conspiracy involving their parents, a secret society that became corrupted and fractured, and the story’s narrator Lemony Snicket. Count Olaf is thus enmeshed in the answers they’re searching for — even as they constantly flee him.
A Series of Unfortunate Events comes out on Friday the 13th.