The yellow brick road can be a bumpy one. And, apparently, endless.
The last exit off the flaxen highway takes us to NBC, via pit stops through a Game of Thrones production meeting and a few rejected Wachowski storyboards from Jupiter Ascending, for its gritty Wizard of Oz-inspired Emerald City.
Dorothy is all grown up in Emerald City, and so is the tone. Blood, sex, and even point-blank gunshots abound in the opiate-infused reinvention of L. Frank Baum’s stories by director Tarsem Singh, whose work (The Cell, Mirror Mirror) seems to suggest that he exists in a perpetual couture-adorned fever dream.
The series is a tornado—get it?—of everything “in” in TV these days: singular vision (Singh directs all 10 episodes); far-flung shooting locations (Spain, Croatia, and Hungary); active diversity (Adria Arjona’s Dorothy is half Hispanic); full-throttle graphicness (put the kids to bed before watching); and, in addition to arresting visuals that dazzle as much as they distract, those sun-spot lens flare things that are all over the damn place in J.J. Abrams’s movies.
Sure, a hell of a lot of courage got whipped up in the cyclone too—this is as big a swing as a network can make—but the brains and the heart seemed to get left behind in Kansas.
Then again, this kind of superficially intriguing, ultimately disappointing misfire is nothing new to the land of Oz.
Lining that blasted yellow brick road is a graveyard of countless reinventions of The Wizard of Oz, with the Muppets, Diana Ross, James Franco, Zooey Deschanel, and an ungodly number of animated characters all there pushing daisies. (Presumably with Idina Menzel cackling at them from her “Defying Gravity” perch above.)
For every successful attempt to ease on down the road (though not all Wiz-es are equal), there’s roughly a dozen creatively ambitious disasters.
It’s no mystery why Oz is revisited again and again. Baum’s fantasy land is richly drawn, perfectly allegorical, and, thanks to Judy Garland and a 1939 classic film, instantly recognizable. But those things that make it appealing, as attempt after attempt to twist them into a new and interesting story prove, also make for diminishing returns.
That’s the thing with The Wizard of Oz. We all know the tenets: the tornado, the witch, the munchkins, the brick road, the three sidekicks, and home. Is it exciting to wait and find out how these new spins are going to interpret and reinvent these tenets? Or is it exhausting?
It’s a race for cleverness that doesn’t seem to have a finish line. Or maybe we passed it long ago.
That’s not to say that everything about Emerald City is awful. It’s spell-bindingly beautiful, from the gorgeously shot Kansas to the exhilarating special effects (it’s the rare Oz reboot to pull off the tornado scene) to the chiseled foxiness of the “Scarecrow” character (Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Lucas, swoon).
It’s set in the present day, which means we have to believe that Dorothy lives in a world that has every modern convenience except for The Wizard of Oz and its endless re-imaginings. But, hey, if we’re going to go with a twister carting a girl off to a mythical land, we’ll hang around for that small detail, too.
Failing to learn from the misfire of Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz, our Dorothy Gale is no longer a teen with gumption, but a mopey grown-up. This Dorothy is a nurse who is far too self-aware about her angst: “I wish there was something more,” she tells Aunt Em. When Aunt Em tries to convince her to visit her birth mother, she broods again. “I wish when I met her I was something… more.”
Still, a storm’s-a-brewing, and there’s no better time than that to hop in your pick-up truck to visit your estranged birth mom’s trailer in Kansas. Before she can even cry for Auntie, she finds herself in a cop car with a German shepherd taking the cyclone express to Oz, crash-landing on top of a fabulously outfitted witch.
She discovers a gun in the back of the cop car, and a first-aid kit. She finds the witch’s lifeless body, and is not sufficiently weirded out by the theatrical high-fashion ball gown worn by this person chilling in the woods in the snow, nor by the fact that it’s snowing at all.
Anyway, you know how the rest goes. The munchkins come out. Here they are feral tribal creatures that, sure, aren’t meant to evoke Game of Thrones’ Dothraki in the same way that the supersized Toto isn’t supposed to recall a direwolf.
There’s no Lollipop Guild or Lullaby League singing salutations, however. Instead Dorothy is waterboarded and the Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) wants her killed. For the love of Glinda! (Glinda is played by Nip/Tuck’s Joely Richardson, the only person in this show who understands what camp is, and how essential it is to making Oz tick.)
Again, we pretty much know what to look for as far as the rest of the story goes, and Emerald City infuses those hallmarks with a darkness that might make you raise your eyebrow, but also might make you shrug your shoulders.
West (Ana Ularu) is this version’s spin on the Wicked Witch, and we know she’s evil because when we meet her, she’s having sex and she seems to be addicted to opiates.
The Scarecrow isn’t a scarecrow, per se, as much as he’s a human who’s been left on the side of the road crucified, Jesus-style, and left to die nailed to wooden posts. He has memory loss. Dorothy names him Lucas. They will most definitely have sex at some point.
Other characters from Baum’s imagined world are introduced, and a few are even interesting.
The show's interpretation of Oz is that weird blend of dystopian-future, Middle Age-bleakness that signifies “fantasy” in today’s TV world, where everyone either wears peasant sacks or cumbersome high-fashion origami and the architecture is all medieval but there are drones flying around.
It’s all very big and bold, and boring.
Perhaps we’re being harsh, but that’s because The Wizard of Oz invites harshness. When something is this familiar and a road this well-trodden, even the most outlandish of reinventions run the risk of feeling either blasphemous or rote.
A dark take on The Wizard of Oz? Hardly groundbreaking, even if so much of NBC’s expensive, lavish, daring production actually is.
Is it time to put a moratorium on jaunts down the yellow brick road? We’ve sung down it, danced down it, time-traveled down it, brooded down it, and, now, bled down it. After each time, we try to repave it—when really we may just need to close it down.
It’s funny that as each new spin on Oz takes us some place further from the story we know, we pretty much just want to click our heels three times and head back to the original. There’s no place like home.