Features Reviews TV

Emerald City’s Lack of Focus Drags the Show Down

The concept of NBC’s Emerald City was an imaginative one: What if The Wizard of Oz was written by George R.R. Martin. ‘Kay, I’m onboard. The ten-episode dark fantasy series orbited my radar for a few years despite the announcement of its cancellation and then revival before it even aired. I am a die hard fan of the Oz franchise, growing up with the 1939 MGM film, the 1980s anime, and other such films related to Dorothy and friends. I hear of a new Oz project, I will search the internet for any information I can find. Emerald City itself is a show with ambition, good intentions, but perhaps wasn’t quite to the expectations I had hoped for.

Seemingly wishing to be more like Games of Thrones than anything else, the series tries to follow that show’s example of storytelling and world building, but remembered it was about The Wizard of Oz, and kneecapped the more adult aspects of Game of Thrones like the gore, sex, and crucial world building. Despite telling a complex story during its brief run, Emerald City pales in comparison to the show it is copying, with predictable plot twists, bland leads, and a strange need to remove all the whimsy and charm that made Oz such a beloved story and world. Perhaps as a fan of The Wizard of Oz and Game of Thrones, I was expecting too much, but the show has to have its own identity. It tries, but doesn’t necessarily succeed either.

Right away, a major problem lies in our protagonist. Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) is not a farmgirl but rather a grown up nurse living in Kansas. Her characterization is a little vague to say the least. It is only ten minutes into the pilot before she gets flung into Oz, and all we know about her is that she wants more in life for her family and is completely a-okay with swiping pills for Uncle Henry. Later episodes show she is also prone to self-destructive and underhanded decisions, and really likes shooting people. And frankly, she is boring. Adria Arjona does a decent job, but is given so little to do, and her plots are predictable.

Her “twist” is that she was born in Oz, but her parents are from Earth. They already did that in the Tin Man miniseries. And there is some random nonsense that her mother is not really her mother but another character is revealed to be her mother – and this comes as kind of a “oh, by the way” add-on in the last episode. And don’t get me started on her love life, though I am obligated to since it is such a major focus in the series.

Dorothy along with Toto, who is reimagined as a police dog, crashland in Oz and run over the Wicked Witch of the East (Florence Kasumba), stuff happens, and Dorothy eventually meets Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the series’ equally dull take on the Scarecrow. Here, he is an amnesiac, crucified man who Dorothy rescues, befriends, and quickly falls in love with despite the duo having the chemistry of two mailboxes that have been blown over. Lucas is even more boring than Dorothy, his whole lost memories drama proves to be disappointing, and his strange psychotic tendencies to want to murder people put me right off the character. Dorothy wanders her way through the series, never really goes through a change, has little motivations, and spends most of her time looking a little lost. Frankly, Dorothy could have been left out altogether and nothing would have been lost. She has little impact on the story or in Oz.

The rest of the cast, for the most part, are a bit more enduring. Elsewhere, the Wizard himself (Vincent D’Onofrio) rules Oz from the Emerald City, which lacks any actual emeralds, and wishes to ban magic from the land, being violently pro-science. Opposing him are the witches, the bitchy Glinda (Joely Richardson) and the down-on-her-luck West (Ana Ularu). While Glinda is played straightforward as the manipulative schemer, sans the sugary kindness, West is surprisingly sympathetic and likeable in comparison to her more iconic green-skinned counterpart (unless named Elphaba). While Glinda and West are labelled as the good witch and bad witch, their positions slowly changing as the series goes on.

Vincent D’Onofrio is awesome, but he is less “the man behind the curtain” and more drawing influence from his role as the Kingpin in Daredevil. He isn’t even a carnival magician anymore, but an egomaniacal scientist who got transported to Oz via an experimental hurricane project. The Wizard is supposed to be charismatic, but is surprisingly pathetic at expressing any form of authority, power, and leadership. There are some moments where he displays a gentler side, but his more ruthless and raving side dominates the role.

In the fourth episode, titled “Science and Magic”, a scene involves the Wizard having the perfect opportunity to convince Ozian traditionalists to embrace science instead of magic, but he instead just uses blackmail to get the village chief into “embracing” change. I imagined an alternative scenario where the chief’s pregnant daughter goes into labour, leading to a battle against time to save her child, allowing the Wizard to demonstrate the possibilities of science in favour of magic. But, nope, they take the cheap route.

Sidebar, perhaps I am being a little harsh on the creative side of the show. Visually, there are lots of lovely shots of scenery and the occasional bit of impressive special effects. Each episode was directed by Tarsem Singh, who is known for his flair for cinematography and capturing the beauty of the world. However, while the writing is mostly predictable and bland, there are rare moments of good storytelling.

Most of that lies with the story arc for Tip (Jordan Loughran), introduced as a boy under the care of the witch Mombi (Fiona Shaw). However, after escaping his prison, Tip abruptly transforms into a girl, and undergoes a realistic journey as she comes to terms with her newfound sexuality and gender. Her story does careen a little towards the end when her true identity of Princess Ozma is revealed, but it was just so great to have the character in the series, and without chickening out on telling the transgender story first established back in 1904. There is also her friend Jack (Gerran Howell), based on Jack Pumpkinhead, who ends up making a quick exit off a balcony in the third episode after getting the hots for the gender-confused Ozma, but is resurrected as the series’ take on the Tin Man. He later forms a relationship with Princess Langwidere (Stefanie Martini), the stroppy heiress of the Land of Ev. Langwidere is also a complex character, hiding her face behind a variety of colourful masks, and her own secrets come as a real, genuine surprise.

You may have noticed I have yet to mention the Cowardly Lion. Well, he is featured as a human named Eamonn (Mido Hamada), captain of the Wizard’s army. But, he doesn’t really have a story arc until they throw in some stuff in the last couple of episodes to give him something to do beyond stand around and be nearly killed. It turns out he is the Jaime Lannister of the series, aka the Kingslayer, but minus the actual interesting qualities. And this does bring me back to comparing Emerald City and Game of Thrones.

It feels like the show creators wanted to dilute the source material of all whimsy and go for a more dark, gritty, depressing, Westerosi-style environment. The Munchkins are now the wildlings, the flying monkeys are reimagined as surveillance drones, all the iconography of the novels and films are sucked dry, etc. The yellow brick road does get a clever redesign, made up of poppy seeds instead of bricks, but the Emerald City looks like your generic fantasy city, and even the Ruby Slippers are missing, instead replaced with the less glittery Ruby Gloves. What, were magic shoes too flashy for this show?

But for all of the complaining, I did enjoy Emerald City. Like I said, I see something that is a new Oz-related story, I jump on it like a kid trying to catch a firefly. While the story was a little predictable, the stories of certain characters, namely Tip, Jack, West, Langwidere, and the Wizard on-and-off, kept me going. The production value was pretty good. The special effects looked impressive, the acting was good, and I did like some of the decisions to incorporate certain elements from the Oz mythos in a new light. The series even had an enjoyable but pointless set up for a second season we likely won’t get.

Unfortunately, Emerald City was DOA as soon as it aired, not knowing what it wants to be and its attempt to fuse two very different yet iconic fantasy franchises into one doesn’t really work. I would say the Tin Man miniseries released a few years ago did a better job. Still, if a second was given the green light, I would be willing to watch it.

Did you watch Emerald City and what were your thoughts on it? Is it too much like Game of Thrones or managed to develop its own identity? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell