Stay on target
NBC’s dark and gritty reboot of The Wizard of Oz kicked off with a two-hour premiere that felt much longer. Emerald City attempts to update the classic tale with as much sex, drugs and violence as NBC will allow. The result is a show that tries to be edgy for the sake of being edgy and forgets to tell a compelling story.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. Some of the changes to the characters are interesting. The Scarecrow is actually a knight who Dorothy finds tarred, feathered and crucified. Instead of explicitly lacking a brain, he has amnesia. The Wizard is a totalitarian dictator who has banned all magic because he’s afraid of powerful women. Though he does allow the Mistress of the Eastern Wood (Emerald City‘s version of The Wicked Witch of the East) to run a magical prison for people caught using magic.
The witches also have an interesting twists. The Wicked Witch of the West hasn’t taken the magic ban well. She is now the owner of a brothel and an opium addict. Her sister Glinda, on the other hand, is more politically minded. She has seemingly allied herself with the wizard but appears to be plotting against him. She feels like Emerald City‘s version of Cersei Lannister. Only without the incest. (The Game of Thrones comparisons don’t stop there. Everything about this show, from the story to the general look and feel, is cribbing heavily from the HBO series’s playbook.)
Oliver Jackson Cohen as Lucas, Adria Arjona as Dorothy (Photo by: Rico Torres/NBC)
Dorothy might be the biggest misstep so far. You can kind of see what the show is going for. She’s a nurse in Lucas, Kansas with nothing really keeping her there. She’s unhappy at her job. There’s a doctor who likes her, but she’s not interested in much more than an occasional hookup. She’s on her way to meet her biological mother, who gave her up as an infant when the tornado strikes. At her mother’s trailer, she stumbles onto a crime scene, and a policeman appears to be trying to kill her. Before we can process any of that, the tornado approaches, and Dorothy dives into a police car for protection.
She ends up in OZ along with Toto, a German Shepard police dog. She grabs a police jacket and a gun and steps out of the car only to discover that she hit the Mistress of the Eastern Wood. The munchkins, now a tribal culture called Freelanders, think Dorothy has killed the Mistress. Since only a witch can kill another witch, they interrogate her for a while before sending her to the Emerald City to apologize to the Wizard.
There, we see the problem with Dorothy as a character. With nothing at home to go back to, she is only following the yellow brick road because someone else told her to. There’s nothing driving her personally. Her journey has no stakes, and as a result, there’s no real reason for her to do anything other than the fact that the plot has to move forward somehow. She’s boring. The only thing that saves her is Adria Arjona’s performance, who does what she can with what little she’s given.
Florence Kasumba as Wicked Witch of the East (Photo by: Rico Torres/NBC)
As you can expect from anything directed by Tarsem Singh, Emerald City looks fantastic. For the most part. The cinematography is beautiful, and Singh does a decent job of transforming Barcelona into the Emerald City with minimal CGI. Even one of the more violent scenes, where Dorothy tricks the Mistress of the Eastern Wood (who wasn’t as dead as the Freelanders thought) into shooting herself (now she is), ends with a jaw-droppingly gorgeous, symbolic shot.
That’s another element of Emerald City that, like all of Singh’s work, is both a strength and a weakness. Every shot is beautifully and purposefully composed, filled with symbolism. The problem is that it often doesn’t symbolize anything in particular. Why was the scarecrow crucified? I don’t know, nobody ever addresses it, but it made for a pretty cool shot. The Mistress of the Eastern Wood’s robes splaying out like the sun after she shoots herself? It looks amazing, but hell if I know what it means. There are also moments of the show that don’t live up to what you’d expect from Singh. The colors are oddly washed out in some scenes, where they really shouldn’t be. When Kansas is prettier than parts of Oz, you may have a problem.
After Dorothy kills the Mistress for real and takes her magic torture-gloves (rather than ruby slippers), the plot stops moving so all the characters can be properly introduced. The most interesting is Tip, a boy who’s been held prisoner by Mombi. (Kudos to the writers for digging deep into Oz canon for this show.) After Dorothy, the Scarecrow and Tip’s friend Jack help him escape; it’s revealed that he’s biologically female. That story has the potential to go in some really interesting directions if it’s handled right.
Ana Ularu as West (Photo by: David Lukacs/NBC)
Ultimately, Emerald City is a frustrating show. There are some interesting ideas here, and it is technically very well made. It’s also boring and slow. Singh wants to make sure you notice all the care and symbolism that goes into each shot, creating a show that is only vaguely familiar with the concept of pacing. Some decisions also only seem to be made to up the “edgy” factor of the show. For example, the yellow brick rode is only yellow because of opium. (Well, poppies really, but same thing.) Dorothy tricking the Mistress into suicide was also oddly dark and out-of-character, even given what little we know of her. It also makes her disturbance at seeing the scarecrow bash Mombi’s head in rings a little hollow. I’ll probably give the show another shot to see where it goes, but as far as introductions go, this wasn’t the best. Besides, didn’t we all get tired of dark, gritty reboots back in the 2000s?