NBC, Fridays @ 9pm (10 episodes reviewed)
When last I wrote, I spoke of the darkness currently pervading life right now. It's not just my life, but seemingly everywhere. Darkness and dark thoughts seem overwhelming, stress and stressors are more rampant than ever. The things that are bright and good have largely gone dark as well, particularly in our popular culture. Superman, a symbol for truth and justice, a symbol of the American way has been popularized in two movies as having incredible waves of doubt, being counseled by his own parents to be selfish and protective, rather than altruistic. I spoke last of Riverdale which takes the perennially sunny gang from the Archie Comics world and places them in the midst of statutory rape, murder, and slut shaming stories. In that same vein we have this (relatively) new series from NBC and director Tarsem Singh, which turns the stories of L. Frank Baum's Oz on their head and then bashes them into the floor.
Emerald City was ordered with a 10-episode run for its first and probably only season. It's intent was to take a known property and attempt to capitalize upon the success of Game of Thrones, by injecting sex and excesses of blood into the mix of a fantasy world. The problem with this, of course, is that the Oz books and its characters were conceived as entertainment for younger readers (but intended to delight all members of the family). Baum's Oz was not an idyllic fantasy land by any stretch, but it was one of wonder, mirth and whimsy. Baum's stories were riddled with playful language, eccentric characters and vibrant fantasy, so that the darker tidings only felt like passing shadows. Emerald City is all shadows, with nary a hint of sun.
Dorothy of this series is a mid-twenties nurse, adopted into a family with a passing knowledge of her real mother. As expected, a tornado casts her from her small town roots in Kansas into the treacherous world of Oz. Armed with a police officer's pistol and a German shepherd by her side, she's dubbed a witch by the local tribal village and cast out. She meets an amnesiac man crucified on the side of the road, a wound in his side, tarred and strawed. She helps this quasi-scarecrow and dubs him Lucas (after her hometown). He's starry eyed and handsome, tall, rugged and cut. The sparks fly instantly. But the witch of the East has taken an interest in Dorothy's sudden arrival and starts to torture the two of them. In the process Dorothy convinces a curious East to "try her magic" and she ends up shooting herself in the head. It takes a witch to kill a witch, apparently, and a manhunt for Dorothy ensues.
Along the way they meet Mombi and Tip, the latter held prisoner by the former, convinced her entire life that she's actually a boy. Helped by Dorothy and Lucas, Tip is freed and on the run with her friend Jack, but when Jack starts ogling a confused Tip's true form, an accident ensues and Jack is left for dead. Except Jack is saved by a kind scientist who makes him into a tin man, and a servant of the face-changing Princess Languidere.
Dorothy eventually meets the Wizard (after first encountering West, the opiate-addled witch in the service of the Wizard, proprietor of the Emerald City brothel), who is clearly a charlatan who gained power after somehow casting out "the Beast Forever". After taking rule, he outlawed magic, only allowing West, East and Glinda to continue their practice alone, and in his service. We learn it was the Wizard's incursion upon Oz from Earth that brought the Beast Forever forth, and similarly, Dorothy's arrival bodes ill.
Nobody in this interpretation of the Oz stories is particularly good, and only in short, fleeting spurts can they be considered sympathetic. Even Dorothy's singular-minded search to return home betrays the logic of what she has found in Oz. There was no sense of a real life for her back in Kansas, and it's quite clear she has a purpose here. Yet, the show waffles between her conviction to helping and her desire to get out to the point that her motivations never feel solid or true. As our focal character this makes the show very hard to invest in.
The Wizard is our second POV character. While in previous interpretations he has always been a fraud, here he's very dangerous and power-mad. Most other stories find a man who has gotten in over his head. There's a sense that the show is trying to make a Trump-ian allegory with the Wizard's literal witch hunt, but it doesn't really stick to it with any real conviction.
Tip and Jack mark our C- and D-characters. Tip's frustration about gender-bending is understandable, but the show misses the mark in really tackling the idea of trans issues and what kind of confusion people might actually feel. Generally Tip is just angry all the time and it rarely manifests into any sort of meaningful insight into her character (and of course any Oz fan knows she's Ozma, the lost Princess of Oz, but it's taken 8 episodes to reveal that). Jack meanwhile struggles with his relationship with Languidere, a clearly sociopathic young woman who has no idea what it means to have friends or feelings, really. The purpose of Jack's story in the overall narrative isn't entirely clear beyond needing a tin man.
Every character in the show feels like a botched attempt at making them "for mature audiences". Glinda is the most palpable example. She's historically known as "the good witch" but in this show's efforts to subvert all we know about Oz, she's as nasty, conniving and manipulative as everyone else. Oz isn't a magical place here, there's no wonder, and absolutely no joy. It's oppressive and bleak.
Every time a character is given motivation, it's altered or disrupted by something else. There's no clear through line for them or the show, no sense of purpose, no real justification for existing, beyond the Game of Thrones/Oz mashup. It feels like a "we better do it before someone else does" conceit. The stories and characters feel rushed and not well thought through, which is odd given the rather exquisite production values it has.
Tarsem Singh is known for his rather lavish visuals in films like The Cell, The Fall and Immortals. He knows how to compose a picture to be sure. He and his location scouts are beyond compare when it comes to finding unique and arresting environments to situate his stories in. His wardrobe department here is top-tier movie quality, Languidere's masks alone each a work of art. But as with all of Singh's films, the stories and characters fall flat against such astonishing visual design. Singh decided to direct every episode of Emerald City and it has an intangible visual consistency that almost no other TV show can match as a result, but at the same time, the stories and characters don't feel appropriately guided. It's not unwatchable by any means, but it's certainly lacking in real gravitas or emotion.
Even the casting -- which was done on an international scale, bringing an easy multicultural feel to the production -- is admirable. The players here are mostly new or new-to-America faces, but some are recognizable like Joely Richardson as Glinda and Vincent D'Onofrio as the Wizard. Everyone seems to be invested in the production, nobody seems bored or doing it for the paycheck, but at the same time, motivation seems to be as lost on the actors as it is on the audience, leaving a lot of puzzling acting decisions.
Throughout the show's run, as my enjoyment of it ebbed and flowed, I could never shake the feeling that this show is an aberration against everything Oz should be. There should be playfulness and joy, there should be awe and wonder. There should be brightness and goodness at every turn, keeping any darkness at bay. Instead it's a beautiful nightmare version of a familiar land and story.