Lucy Punch, Neil Patrick Harris
Photo: Joseph Lederer (Netflix)

“The Ersatz Elevator: Part One” ends with a song. There’s no real reason for it to end this way. In order to keep Count Olaf (in disguise as the uber-fashionable Gunther) from returning to the hotel where he’s trapped the Quagmire triplets (minus one) in an elevator shaft, Larry and Jacquelyn maneuver the villain into performing for a rapt crowd. It’s the thinnest of pretexts; nothing we’ve heard about “Gunther” suggests he’s a singer, so there’s no sense of him being forced to play within the rule of his own fiction. Olaf is an actor, of course, but the whole thing really plays out as though the folks behind the scenes decided, hey, we’ve got Neil Patrick Harris, why the hell not. Or maybe Harris himself requested it.

Regardless, it’s… fine. Not the catchiest song ever, but not the worst, and Harris has great fun hamming it up in a slightly different way than usual. The sequence does serve as a decent counterpoint to the Baudelaires efforts to find the Quagmires, contrasting their determination to do good against Olaf’s commitment to dastardly deeds. It’s also wildly indulgent, which would be less of a problem if the show wasn’t already wildly indulgent with its villains.

See, in the source material, we saw everything through the Baudelaires’ perspective. There were no goofy cutaways to Olaf bragging to his crew, no subplots about a librarian deciding she wants to become a hero. The books weren’t perfect (and by this point, the whole “kids go to new place, Olaf shows up with new face” routine was getting seriously old), but they at least managed to keep the Baudelaires at the center of the action, which meant we saw their world through their perspective. It ensured that they mattered, and that we were rooting for them to survive.

Which isn’t to saw we aren’t rooting for the Baudelaires on the TV show. But it’s more complicated here, because by giving Olaf this much screen-time, and by making the character funnier and slightly more self-aware than he ever was in the books, he more or less becomes the show’s other protagonist. That’s not automatically bad, and this version of Olaf is quite a bit of fun, but it creates a weird case of divided loyalties in a narrative that isn’t really designed to support such a thing.

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Exploring the motivation of your villain is usually a smart move, but that’s not really what’s happening here—it’s more of a dilution of focus then a refraction, and the result is that whatever precious narrative urgency is left in these far-too-long episodes gets further muddled. We already know at this point that Olaf’s schemes won’t work; we also know the children won’t escape until the very end, if ever. So without pace or focus, we’re left with what’s really just a lot of world-building and comedy routines that hit or miss in isolation, with little in the way of cumulative effect.

The Baudelaires’ new home, a ritzy penthouse owned by Jerome and Esme Squalor, is another in a long line of minor dystopias. Jerome (Tony Hale) is yet another well-meaning but utterly impotent grown-up friend, and Esme (Lucy Punch) is a status-obsessed monster, interested in adopting the orphans only because orphans are “in” this season. Hale is charming, Punch does her entertaining-annoying thing, and the apartment looks neat. The show really is a marvel of production design, a consistent sort of cheerful-Edward-Gorey look that helps to suggest form even when there really isn’t any.

“Part One” also brings back the librarian (Sara Rue) from the previous two episodes; she’s still worried about the orphans, and her determination to do the right thing brings her into the proximity of first Jacquelyn, then Jacques. We find out her name (Olivia Caliban), and by the end of the hour, she’s teamed up with Jacques for an ineffectual search of the high-rise where the Squalors live.

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Rue and Fillion are as charming as ever, and the minor flirtation between them is cute, but as with all elements of this ongoing subplot—the secret group that the Baudelaire parents may have been involved with which Olaf might have been part of which is trying to save the Baudelaires from Olaf, sort of—there’s that weird cognitive dissonance of watching people who are clearly presented as competent and heroic repeatedly doing incompetent things. And it’s not really meant as a joke, either. Where, say, Poe’s efforts to help the orphans are always absurdly misguided, Jacquelyn and the others are hyper determined and focused. They’re just completely incapable of actually accomplishing anything, and it’s impossible to tell if that’s some sort of sly subversive subtext (on a not particularly subtle show) or just the simple fact that, well, we’ve got all this time and we need to fill it, but we also have to make sure the Baudelaires are the ones who do all the actual work.

Whatever the reason, it’s no huge surprise that Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are the ones to locate the Quagmires at the end. (Using a cobbled together hot air balloon, which is quite clever.) Presumably this will introduce some more stakes to the second half of the story—and there’s an auction to look forward to as well. “Part One” has plenty of delightful beats, and I’m sure there will be more to come. It’s just, not every song needs to be quite this long.

Stray observations

  • If I had to point to a specific example of how the show’s unnecessary long running time hurts it, I’d probably bring up the restaurant swapping in this episode; starting at Herring Houdini, before getting dragged to the Salmon Cafe, before being dragged back to Herring Houdini makes it feel like the plot is running around in circles, which makes it that much harder to build suspense.
  • We learn the difference between “nervous” and “anxious.” The former means “worried about something,” while the latter is “troubled by disturbing suspense.” Ah, edutainment.
  • “I’ll run around in panicky circles!” -Esme
  • “Does this seem like a nightmare? A bad dream? Because that’s the effect I was going for.” -Olaf
  • “In my country, children do not interrupt married couple and foreigner during trick.” -Olaf (as Gunther)
  • “Gunter, your country is so interesting, not like those other countries that make me feel guilty or uncomfortable.” -Esme
  • “Let’s hope we get lucky in the penthouse.” Goodnight!

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