Emmy spotlight: Neil Patrick Harris (‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’) gives four performances for price of one

All of last year’s Emmy nominees for Best Comedy Actor could possibly return this year: Anthony Anderson (“Black-ish”), Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”), Will Forte (“The Last Man on Earth”), William H. Macy (“Shameless”), Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), and two-time returning victor Jeffrey Tambor (“Transparent”). However, even in a crowded field there’s one performance from a new series this year that deserves recognition, and that is Neil Patrick Harris in “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

On Netflix’s adaptation of Daniel Handler’s novels, Harris plays the sinister role of Count Olaf, an unscrupulous actor determined to claim the Baudelaire family fortune all for himself after the three Baudelaire children are left orphaned by a sudden fire. Not only that, but Harris also gets to pull off three elaborate disguises throughout the first season to hoodwink authorities as he tries to steal their inheritance: lab assistant Stephano, sailor Captain Sham, and lumber mill receptionist Shirley. The actor even shaved his head just to fit into the look of each of those personas — costume designers and hair and makeup artists could themselves be contenders for Emmy nominations for Harris’s dramatic makeovers.

The overall performance results in a very theatrical character, which seems fitting since Harris is a theater actor himself — and so is Count Olaf. You know exactly what kind of larger-than-life performance you’re in for from the very first episode. He also very successfully inhabits his three disguises in the rest of the season, which shows off his dramatic range and comedic versatility. It gives Emmy voters the chance to vote for four performances for the price of one, and we know how much they love multiple roles (Toni Collette in “United States of Tara,” Tatiana Maslany in “Orphan Black”).

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In a career spanning of over 29 years, Harris has garnered four Emmy nominations for “How I Met Your Mother” and five Emmy wins — one for guest starring on “Glee” in 2010, and the rest for all four years he hosted the Tony Awards (2010, 2012-2014). He won a Tony himself for starring as the title character in “Hedwig & the Angry Inch” on Broadway in 2014, which also earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theater Album. So he’s widely admired throughout entertainment industries.

TV critics agree that Harris is Emmy worthy, with Ben Travers (IndieWire) writing, “Not enough can be said for Neil Patrick Harris’ extensively ranged, yet perfectly measured performance.” And Dana Schwartz (New York Observer) says, “All of the times Neil Patrick Harris is on screen are a sheer delight.”

Jim Carrey previously played the role of Count Olaf in the 2004 film adaptation of the first three books in the “Unfortunate Events” series directed by Brad Silberling — undoubtedly a tough act to follow. But given the longer running time of a television series, Harris is able to dive into the first four books over the course of the eight-episode first season, and he’ll be back for more since the series was renewed for season two.

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