Tarsem Singh (Director)
Matt Arnold, Josh Friedman, David Schulner, Shaun Cassidy, Naomi Iizuka, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Tracy Bellomo, Josh Carlback (Writers)
Adria Arjona, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Ana Ularu, Gerran Howell, Jordan Loughran, Joely Richardson, Vincent D’Onofrio (cast)
Emerald City might be peak genre pastiche gritty reboot for me. When I first heard about the project I was pretty excited — Wizard of Oz through the eye of Tarsem Singh, director of stunning films like The Fall and The Cell? Sign me up for some sumptuous aesthetics — I was already imagining the bright and fanciful land of Oz. It seemed even more promising when a number of race-bent characters were announced.
In practice, however Emerald City feels like a project with no intended audience. There’s no whimsy or cleverness in this interpretation of Oz — no awe-inspiring technicolor or a cast of strange and magical characters and creatures. Instead, it’s drab and joyless, an Oz where magic has been banned. It’s taken the story from high fantasy to low, but who exactly has been clamoring for Game of Thrones meets Oz?
Maybe the showrunners are banking on there being an Oz for everyone. There have been an astonishing number of interpretations of L. Frank Baum’s children’s books; it’s an attractive property considering the stories are public domain. Also, there’s a wealth of material: Baum wrote fourteen books set in Oz, and then others continued playing with in his universe. And then there’s the plethora of live-action adaptations. The most modern include the classic Judy Garland film, Return to Oz with Fairuza Balk, The Wiz with Diana Ross — Zooey Deshchanal even took a turn as Dorothy Gale in SyFy’s Tin Man. And then, of course, there’s Wicked, the books and the Broadway play.
Return to Oz seems to be the closest spiritual forefather to Emerald City, a bleaker view of a scarier Oz under a despotic rule. But Return to Oz did a better job of blending the books’ various characters while keeping it reminiscent of, well, Oz. The show seems to be making a half-hearted attempt at referencing the deep cuts of Frank L. Baum’s catalog — we meet a surly munchkin named Ojo, who first appeared in Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz, but he seems like a normal human.
Similarly, I have to assume Tip’s (Jordan Loughran) friend Jack (Gerran Howell) is meant to be Jack Pumpkinhead, who Tip built and Mombi brought to life in The Marvelous Land of Oz. But he’s just a regular kid, with no pumpkinhead to be seen. Tip hews the closest to their book counterpart, but I’m not certain the show will deal with the gender issues there very well. The interesting things about better known characters are stripped away in an attempt at — what? Realism? Grittiness? Adulthood?
The show retreads old plot beats — we meet our Scarecrow analogue strung up on the side of the road. So far, so good. But instead of being plagued by emboldened crows or being full of scraps of wisdom in his stuffing, he’s just a regular, vaguely British human man. Instead of having no brain, he has amnesia and a sword. There’s no gasp of surprise when he starts to move that first time Dorothy sees him.
All the fun, whimsy, and most of all weirdness has been sucked away. It takes forty minutes before someone laughs in Oz. It’s grim…and it’s boring.
It’s tired. Everything about it makes me embarrassed and exhausted.
There’s some Lord of the Rings looking architecture (Glinda appears to live in Minas Tirinth), a Game of Thrones brothel, and even an original knight character named Eamonn, loyal with flowing black hair. Glinda’s acolytes are dressed in The Handmaid’s Tale-esque nun bonnets. The yellow brick road is actually a trail of poppy pollen and the show humorlessly lets us in on the fact that this means there’s opium in Oz. There’s even a racist culture mash-up that leaves the Munchkins as Inuit Vikings: white people in pelts having drum circles. It just raises the question: why bother with this update if it’s just going to retread the old genre beats, complete with problems, and bring in none of the whimsy and fun of the original? It all feels very restrained, which is the opposite of what I expect from Singh. Oz begs for his usual bright, supersaturated palette and bold cinematography. Instead, the visuals only remind me of other stories — there’s no cohesive voice to be seen.
Another disappointment of this reinterpretation is that it’s already spent too much time on the Wizard, the dullest character from Oz (see: James Franco’s Oz the Great and Powerful — or rather, don’t). With a canon that includes General Jinjur and her all-women Army of Revolt, Ozma, and a multitude of witches, why bother even making him malevolent? There’s nothing fresh about twisting a benign character in children’s literature to be a fascist, especially when Oz’s canon already provides its own evil kings. Though the show is crammed with women, I felt like I learned more about the Wizard than I did any of the witches except perhaps Mombi — and that doesn’t bode well considering we haven’t even met the Tin Man or Cowardly Lion yet.
I can’t say much about the performances because none of the actors are given very much to do in the first two episodes. We learn Dorothy (Adria Arjona) is Latina, a nurse, and has a troubled history with her family that leads her to shy away from relationships. Basically, she is the grim-faced stoic man of page and film. I guess it’s nice to see a woman being given the stoic man role, but then she’s paired with only a slightly less stoic Scarecrow. There’s clunky hints at attraction between them, but it’s hard to tell because all Dorothy really has to do is be cool-headed in a crisis — and she’s surrounded by crises. It feels like I should be into this character on paper, but during the show I just want something nice to happen to her, or for her to see something beautiful. Instead, she gets water-tortured by munchkins. Florence Kasumba is going to be absolutely wasted as the Wicked Witch of the East — she’s the Dora Milaje who stole everyone’s hearts in Captain America: Civil War (her character, Ayo, will be back in Black Panther, at least). The other witches are just character types we’ve seen before — domineering ice queen and strung-out wild card.
Tip and Jack are the only two characters allowed to express a full emotion — everyone else is forced to hold back, presumably for “realism’s sake” or something. But why bother? Let the witches let loose and cackle, let Dorothy take in a wondrous land with awe, let Vincent D’Onofrio play something other than Kingpin (but with magic this time, I guess). While Tarsem Singh knows how to set a stage, this adaptation has no vision to it.