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RetrOZpective: Emerald City (2017)

It feels appropriate that the final review in our RetrOZpective is Emerald City, the short-lived 2017 series from NBC. Where else does the yellow brick road lead to after all. The most recent take on adapting the books to a new format, Emerald City’s basic take was “What if The Wizard of Oz was in Westeros?” By no means a bad concept.

The series had a lot of potential in its premise, with a well-rounded cast, and director-cinematographer Tarsem Singh at the helm. But, perhaps the show was doomed from the start; having been cancelled two years before it even aired, originally described as a police procedural, before returning to be an ambitious adaptation that wished to be set in Westeros than in merry old Oz.

The series was created by Matthew Arnold and Joshua Friedman, though both were gone by the time Emerald City aired with little fanfare. Oz is no stranger to a dark and gritty universe, but Emerald City takes a more tame direction, bailing on the adult content that added to Game of Thrones’ success. The writers aimed to tale a sprawling mythos, fleshing out the familiar characters and world of Oz in a fresh, grounded realm. Yet, the lack of commitment to either keep Oz’s established whimsy, or establish a grimmer fantasy left the tone unbalanced.

Adria Arjona plays Dorothy, reimagined as a struggling nurse, who has an estranged relationship with her mother Karen (Gina Bellman). In an attempt to reconcile with her mother, Dorothy finds Karen injured and she is attacked by a police officer. Seconds later, a tornado whisks her and the cop’s dog Toto away to the Land of Oz. Dorothy runs over East (Florence Kasumba), one of four cardinal witches, though she survives, only to blow her brains out when Dorothy tricks her into messing around with a handgun. Yeah, dropping a house on her isn’t enough anymore. But, it is mentioned that only a witch can kill another witch, so shouldn’t East survive blowing her own brains out?

Dorothy, who can be a rather self-destructive and amoral character, quickly becomes the target for the other power players in Oz. She is regarded as an agent for the Beast Forever, an enigmatic presence that has threatened Oz repeatedly. The last attempt was thwarted by the Wizard of Oz, played superbly by Vincent D’Onofrio, a dictator who has banned magic in favour of science. The Wizard claims he controlled stone giants scattered across Oz to defeat the Beast, though apparently no one actually witnessed his feats firsthand. In opposition to the Wizard are the remaining cardinal witches. The sympathetic West (Ana Ularu), high on poppy opium, grieving her fellow sisters who died fighting the Beast Forever; and the icy Glinda (Joel Richardson), who trains nuns to act as the Wizard’s advisors.

Vincent D’Onofrio portrays the Wizard similar to the Kingpin. The character is petty, obstinate, and prone to underhanded deceit. His anti-magic, pro-science regime somehow works, despite being surrounded by vengeful witches. Reimagined as a Kansan meteorologist, the Wizard and Dorothy’s parents were sent to Oz after a weather experiment went wrong, implying he sabotaged it. Several episodes could have been used to explore his rise to power, but we only got one. The character never justifies why his science is better than magic, other than he controls his inventions. In one episode, he visits a pro-magic village to convince the mayor to change his ways. Rather the demonstrate his intellect by helping the mayor’s pregnant wife give birth, the Wizard just blackmails him into obeying.

Anyway, the Wizard sends his bodyguard Eamonn (Mido Hamada) to kill Dorothy. Eamonn is supposed to be the Cowardly Lion, but beyond a lion-themed helmet, that is about it. The character is set up as the Jamie Lannister of the show, being a kingslayer, but he lacks Jamie’s depth. For some reason, other knights try to murder him without context, but he slays them. Dorothy, meanwhile, gets waterboarded by the reimagined Munchkins, then sets off down the yellow brick road to reach the titular Emerald City. She acquires East’s magical ruby gloves, a new take on the slippers. It does allow Dorothy a taste of power though and the temptation to become a witch, which has never been portrayed outside of literature (e.g. see Dorothy Must Die).

On the way, she rescues a crucified amnesiac she names Lucas, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen prior to his excellent stints in the Haunted series. Lucas is the Scarecrow’s equivalent, lacking his memories to stand in for being brainless. However, while the inevitable romance between Dorothy and Lucas can be attributed to shared trauma, it doesn’t help that he turns out to be a murdering, raging psychopath who really likes beating people to death. Add that with Dorothy’s habit of shooting people, they could have made a Bonnie and Clyde-esque power couple.

By far the most captivating subplot revolves around Tip (Jordan Loughran), a sickly boy imprisoned by the witch Mombi (Fiona Shaw), dependent on her magic to keep him well. Tip is rescued by his best friend Jack (Gerran Howell). However, the next day, Tip is horrified and confused to find he has transformed into a girl. Fleeing to the Land of Ev, they learn Tip was a girl at birth. In the books, Tip is actually Princess Ozma, transformed into a girl to hide her identity. Including Tip’s transgendered identity was a stroke of genius, handling it with care and complexity. Tip must come to terms with her new body, identity, sexism and gender roles in Oz. There is a striking scene where Tip doesn’t know which public restroom to go in, and is sexually harassed several times too.

Jack doesn’t help matters when he suddenly snogs his confused BFF and gets shoved off a balcony to his death. Whilst Tip runs off on her journey of self-identity, Jack is revived by scientist Jane Andrews (Gina McKee), transformed into a Tin Man-esque cyborg. Jack soon finds himself in the servitude of Princess Langwidere (Stefanie Martini), the stroppy, mask-wearing warden of Ev. Their relationship turns into romance, though there are secrets abound for both of them. During all this, Dorothy is searching for a way home, but is drawn into the politics and secrets of Oz.

In hindsight, I was a bit too harsh on Emerald City when it first premiered. It certainly strives to flesh out its unique take on Oz, even if it tries leaning too hard on Game of Thrones for inspiration. It shamelessly takes cues from the show: the warring factions, a corrupt leader, a lost princess, an enigmatic greater threat. The Munchkins are basically reskinned Wildlings. References to the deeper Oz lore are appreciated, introducing several obscure, revised characters from the books. Other elements are reimagined, such as the flying monkeys becoming drones, whilst the yellow brick road is made out of poppy seeds in one of the series’ many striking visuals. The ruby gloves seem a little arbitrary, but perhaps magic shoes were unrealistic for Emerald City’s setting.

Likely knowing the series would not get a second season, the last couple of episodes feel rushed, especially in Dorothy and Tip’s story arcs. Dorothy learns she was actually born in Oz, suggesting a greater destiny. But, this leads to unnecessary melodrama where it is hinted the Wizard might be her father, but then both this and Karen being her mother are proven false. Tip abruptly embraces both her identity and destiny as Ozma thanks to West, and retakes her throne in about ten minutes. There are several loose threads and hooks for a second season, but it was cancelled unresolved.

Emerald City has a sweeping production, with a great cast, and often gorgeous cinematography provided by Tarsem Singh. It should be admired for taking a risk in developing a more intricate story and world. Yet, it did not click with viewers. Admittedly, the story can be hard to follow in places, certain characters are less engaging than others, and what could be considered risque may put people off.

Throughout our RetrOZpective, each film and show have carried familiar themes of finding one’s identity, or sense of self. This harkens back to the original book, where Dorothy’s friends seek items that will help define them as people. Emerald City emphasizes this quite a lot.  The need to find a place to belong, to find a place called home. Sadly, the TV series did not find its target audience, which is a shame considering its ambitious take on L. Frank Baum’s world.

Did you watch Emerald City? Was it good, or did you feel it was trying to be too much like Game of Thrones? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

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Mark Russell

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