Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Emerald City" Lacks Shine

I probably should have quit watching "Emerald City" a lot earlier than I did, but I was so hopeful that the series could pull off something great. I'm an old school fan of the original Oz books, and was thrilled at the prospect of seeing a lot of my favorite characters from the series properly on screen for the first time in ages. However, "Emerald City" is a modern reinterpretation of "The Wizard of Oz" aimed at an adult audience, so it wasn't particularly interested in actually doing justice to L. Frank Baum's originals. Mostly, it seemed to be taking its cues from "Game of Thrones, without understanding what made that show work.

Dorothy (Adria Arjona) is a nurse whose mother abandoned her as a child. Her attempts to find her mother lead to her being whisked away by tornado to the Land of Oz, which is controlled by the Wizard (Vincent D'Onofio). The Wizard fears losing power to Oz's witches who he's tried to suppress from doing magic. Three of the powerful "Cardinal" witches remain, Glinda (Joely Richardson), West (Ana Ularu), and East (Florence Kusumba), who Dorothy accidentally kills shortly after her arrival. On her way to find the Wizard, Dorothy also meets an amnesiac soldier she calls Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and helps a young boy named Tip (Jordan Loughran) escape an evil guardian.

This is far from the first time that Oz has gotten a gritty modern revamp, but "Emerald City" is like a time capsule of 2017 trends. Dorothy is of indeterminate ethnicity, leading a cast that's supposed to look diverse, but barely is. "Game of Thrones" influences are everywhere, from the Munchkins resembling a band of Wildlings, to West running a brothel and preaching sex positivity - though we never see anything naughty because this is still network TV. Emerald City is full of intrigues and various figures vying for power. One major character, who has long been one of the few examples of transgender characters in children's literature, is finally acknowledged as such, but the show is reluctant to actually deal with it in any depth.

The one thing the show has on its side is Tarsem Singh, who directed all ten episodes. However, he's clearly working on a TV budget, and there seems to have been a concerted effort to avoid anything too colorful or whimsical. So the only thing that really looks like Tarsem's trademark visuals is the costuming of Glinda's disciples, who resemble periwinkle nuns with giant bulbous headpieces. He also manages to get Adria Arjona into a gauzy red dress for a few minutes to reenact a brief scene from "The Cell." Otherwise, there are a few interesting visuals here and there, but little that's particularly impressive. The story is pretty generic stuff, and the characters are worse. Tip was the only one who managed to win my sympathies with any regularity, thanks to a good performance from Loughran. Dorothy and Lucas are perfectly bland hero types, while the Wizard is promising, but too badly written to actually be compelling.

As an Oz fan it was fun for a few episodes to speculate as to whether Tip's friend Jack (Gerran Howell) was supposed to reference Jack Pumpkinhead, and which of the myriad minor characters might be our Cowardly Lion and Tin Woodsman analogues. However, despite throwing around names like Ev and Ojo and Mombi, there's really no rhyme or reason to which bits of the book got adapted and which didn't, and very little fidelity to anything I enjoyed about the source material. The only Oz characters whose portrayals I was happy with were Tip and Princess Langwidere (Stefanie Martini), a haughty royal from a neighboring kingdom. Alas, due to budget concerns, she switches between wearing different masks, instead of different heads, like the original. In the end, this is just a dull, formulaic adventure serial with a few bits of Oz lore tacked on. Even the CGI set pieces are pretty blah.

Fortunately for me, somebody is bound to try tackling this material again in a few years. Oz remains popular and the books are public domain. When that happens, I hope they'll take a long hard look at "Emerald City" and learn from past mistakes.


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