November 17, 2017

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Viewers’ Advisory: 3 Netflix Series with YA and Kid Appeal

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Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford in 13 Reasons Why (Photos: Netflix)

Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford in 13 Reasons Why (Beth Dubber/Netflix)

Is Netflix the future for book-to-screen adaptations? Within the last few months, the global streaming service has ventured in more original programming for young viewers. Two recent additions to its programming suggest that the multi-episode format may allow more screen time for filmmakers to unspool a convoluted narrative, where the story line takes the shape of a labyrinth rather than a straightforward path. At least two series suggest that streaming provides a more flexible storytelling platform than what is found at the multiplex.

The structure of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel 13 Reasons Why (Penguin) and its terrific hook lend themselves well to episodic television: suburban everyteen Clay receives a box of audiotapes from a classmate who has recently committed suicide. According to the accompanying note, all recipients of the tapes have played a part in her death; listen to find out how, or the tapes go public.

Here, the producers aren’t limited by time constraints or the Motion Picture Association of America. In tone, the dramatization is as adult as, say, House of Cards and the frankest depiction of teen life, at least on the small screen. Another recent adaptation of a popular YA novel, Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, which also boldly deals with bullying, felt constrained in what could be depicted; it’s rated PG-13, though its story line is definitely R rated. (Reasons has been appropriately labeled with Netflix’s TV-MA warning.)

The series also takes on the deadpan (no pun intended) voice of the novel and beefs up the presence of the deceased Hannah. Her voice dominates, more so than the core protagonist’s, Clay (Dylan Minnette). Though the acting by the large ensemble may be spotty here and there, Australian newcomer Katherine Langford as Hannah is a find, bringing warmth and a sense of humor to the dark material. (Selena Gomez, an executive producer, was at one point slated to star.) Filled with incidents that are the stuff of teenage nightmares (slut shaming, for one), Asher’s tale is as timely as ever.

However, at 13 episodes with a total running time of 664 minutes, the series is too long, with many of the segments padded to nearly 60 minutes. When Clay’s friend Troy asks him “What is taking you so long?” in listening to the tapes, the audience may ask the same question. The novel is a fast read in comparison.

From left: Presley Smith, Malina Weissman, and Louis Hynes in A Series of Unfortunate Events

From left: Presley Smith, Malina Weissman, and Louis Hynes in A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix)

Back in January, the streaming service resuscitated a franchise that failed to launch, nimbly adapting the first four books of A Series of Unfortunate Events (HarperCollins) by Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). From the script to the casting, this is a considerable improvement from the 2004 film version staring Jim Carrey and Meryl Steep.

Gothic and campy in almost equal measure, the plot essentially remains the same in each story: the three orphaned Baudelaire children escape the machinations of thief and murderer Count Olaf (going-for-broke Neil Patrick Harris), who schemes to steal their fortune. In each scenario, he takes on a disguise, fooling the adults but not the children. (The expressions of toddler Presley Smith as baby Sunny Baudelaire are preternaturally expressive.) The series retains the books’ built-in cliff-hangers and compact chapters, and the well-paced episodes vary from 42 to 64 minutes.

The entire cast is in on the joke, without winking too much to the camera. And bibliophiles take note: the two-part “The Wide Windows” saga features a library full of nothing of grammar books, providing all you need to know “from the Oxford comma to the Wesleyan semicolon.” With repeated viewings, you make catch more of the rat-a-tat morose dialogue. Two more Unfortunate seasons are on the way.

(One wonders if the film franchise of “The Divergent Saga,” based on Veronica Roth’s dense trilogy, would have fared better as a television series from the get-go. Emphasizing plot over character development, that series has sputtered along after diminishing box office returns and dwindling critics’ support. As time goes on, it seems less likely that its concluding installment will be ever be made.)

Julie Andrews, her Greenies, and assistant Gus (Guillian Yao Gioiello) in Julie's Greenroom (Netflix)

Julie Andrews, her Greenies, and assistant Gus (Guillian Yao Gioiello) in Julie’s Greenroom (Netflix)

Also worthy of note is Netflix’s original programming for younger viewers. One new program in particular is giving PBS Kids a run for its money. With school funding for the performing arts always vulnerable to budget cuts, Julie’s Greenroom may fill a void in teaching the basics about putting about on a show and teamwork, led by Julie Andrews, one of the program’s creators. The series is like having an all-access backstage pass as she guides a diverse group of kids, “her beloved Greenies,” from creating a story to ballet basics to circus arts, learning vocabulary along the way—grandiose, lyrics. Idina Menzel, Chris Colfer, and Alec Baldwin are among the guests who drop by.

The puppets are the creation of Jim Henson Company’s Creature Shop, including keyboard enthusiast Hank, who uses a wheelchair; the princess-y Peri, a huge fan of Wicked (no surprise there); and red-headed mop top Riley. Andrews has said that the latter tot is a girl, but her gender identity might change in future seasons. The malaprop-prone Hugo the Duck as a stage hand and Toby the Dog add to the kid appeal.

Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com

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