Previously on ASOUE: The Austere Academy
“For Beatrice –
When we met, my life began.
At the beginning of The Ersatz Elevator, Lemony Snicket (the always reliable Patrick Warburton) sits us down and gives us a lesson in nervousness and anxiety. Using an ice cream van by way of example, Lemony suggests nervousness comes from being concerned whether or not a particular flavour of ice cream is going to taste good. Anxiousness comes from that feeling of dread when you have a live alligator which you intend cooking for lunch, but you’re deeply troubled by the possibility of said alligator eating you instead. It’s a typical Snicket way to begin a fresh book. All through the series we’re not nervous for the Baudelaires, we’re anxious for them. We dread what’s going to happen to them next. The Ersatz Elevator, book six of thirteen, ups the anxiety stakes considerably. It’s also my favourite instalment so far.
Nothing has changed for the Baudelaires, the formula for each book remains unaltered, but we finally get a sense that there are proactive outside forces working in unison to help both sets of orphans. Last time around, the Quagmires, Duncan and Isadora, were kidnapped by Count Olaf and his cronies and taken to an unknown location, leaving Violet, Klaus, and Sunny bereft. Mr Poe brings them to 667 Dark Avenue where they are greeted by their new set of guardians, Jerome and Esme Squalor (Tony Hale and Lucy Punch). While Jerome is seen to be a decent sort, he’s a dimwit, like most of the adults in this series. The power behind their marriage is Esme, the sixth most important financial advisor in the city. She won’t go anywhere, or do anything, unless society has decided what’s “in” or what’s “out”. Orphans are “in”, apparently, so she welcomes the Baudelaires into their penthouse. They have to negotiate dozens of flights of stairs, however, because elevators are “out”. Apparently.
Count Olaf is already there, disguised as Gunther the Auctioneer. Neil Patrick Harris has the time of his life as Olaf/Gunther – putting the “toot” into Teutonic, complete with high boots, sunglasses, and a Germanic accent straight out of a Mel Brooks movie. He’s delightful, and while I could have done without the musical number in part one (I felt it to be unnecessary padding, unlike the lean mean 40 minutes of part two), Harris brings an energy that’s both entertaining and ever-so psychopathic. As usual, Olaf cooks up a complicated scheme to get the Quagmires, who are held captive in a cage at the bottom of an elevator shaft, out of the city. He needs Esme’s help, which she gives willingly. What follows is a heady mix of slapstick comedy, wordplay (Café Salmonella, anyone?), visual gags, vaudeville, and tension filled set-pieces. It’s safe to say that with seven books still to go in the series, not a lot changes by the time the end arrives. Despite the Baudelaires best attempts, Olaf fools everyone just enough and manages to spirit the Quagmires away in a literal red herring. (It has to be seen to be believed. The whole charade is very clever.) Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
What makes this book my favourite so far isn’t so much the comedy and energy, but the way the world in which the story takes place starts coming together. I thank the stars for whoever cast Nathan Fillion as Jacques Snicket, Lemony’s older brother. He and Sara Rue (returning as Olivia Caliban, Prufrock Preparatory School’s put-upon librarian) make an engaging duo and I enjoyed hugely their Mission Impossible-like escapades, scaling the heights of 667 Dark Avenue so they can rescue the Quagmires, but always coming within seconds of teaming up with the Baudelaires. Fillion plays Jacques with flair, eccentricity, and just the right amount of camp. We also discover he has a similar eye tattoo on his ankle to the one Count Olaf has. What this means for the story, we hope to find out later. Sunny Baudelaire gets some welcome screen time to herself. Using her razor sharp teeth, she rescues her siblings from impending doom in the titular ersatz elevator, while also using her street smarts to outwit the Hook-Handed Man in a hilarious scene that involves a bottle of parsley soda.
Musical interludes aside, The Ersatz Elevator ups the stakes for all concerned. The performances are entertaining, and while I have been remiss in singling out Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes in these reviews, both these young actors have grown into their roles considerably. They, along with Harris, carry much of the show on their shoulders. And doesn’t Patrick Warburton look fetching in his salmon costume?
Next up: The Vile Village.