In NBC's rebooted Oz, wizardly escapism has lost its golden luster and become downright dopey

By Jeff Jensen
January 05, 2017 at 10:53 AM EST
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Dorothy carries a gun. Toto is a fierce police dog. The Scarecrow isn’t a good-natured brainless goof but a brooding amnesiac knight, found tarred and feathered and crucified in a field; he may or may not be trustworthy. None of the witches are good or wicked, and all are slaves to a perverse, patriarchal society. The Wizard is a misogynistic man-child who has conquered Oz and imprinted his retrograde worldview on a once-magical land. The yellow brick road, that classic symbol of the hero’s journey, and the poppy field, that sly metaphor for distracting, numbing amusements, have fused into the same thing: in Emerald City, the path to transcendence is a rough highway powdered with crushed opium cutting through a desolate landscape, a metaphor for… a culture hooked on dark-ride anti-hero escapism? Woo-hoo! Can’t wait to sign up, can you?

No, we aren’t in Kansas anymore, nor are we anywhere close to a faithful riff on The Wizard of Oz, the progenitor of the big budget Hollywood special effects fantasy and model for heroic narrative, at least until Star Wars came along. Emerald City lives somewhere over the rainbow, in the realm of gloomy, humorless deconstruction. The 10-part event series is the labor of many hands — the project had a long, troubled development — but its defining creative intelligence is director Tarsem Singh, a surreal stylist famous for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video and known for metaphysical thrillers (The Cell, self/less), fractured fairy tales (Mirror Mirror), and glossy deconstructions of mythology (Immortals). Born in India, educated in the United States, and a veteran of Hollywood blockbuster wars, Singh creates work that’s deeply versed in Western culture both high and low and is fraught with concerns about psychic takeover, which is to say, assimilation. He’s applied his spectacular symbolist aesthetic and pet themes to a piece of subversive heavy metal aimed at those who dig such stuff. The show draws upon all of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz books, but also sweeps in a broad swath of texts, from the Chronicles of Narnia to A Wrinkle in Time, The Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones. There are dark and stormy nights and much wintry foreboding, humiliating walks of shame, and a most ironic return of the king. Like Syfy’s The Magicians or HBO’s Westworld, Emerald City is a fantasy that explicitly or implicitly interrogates the values of today’s fantasy. It’s interesting to pick apart; it’s not much fun to watch.

(Note: This review speaks specifically and generally to the entire season, which was made available in its entirety to critics, so spoiler warning.)

Singh’s debut, The Cell, was a literal head-trip that brought the subtext of a popular genre — the cellular truths, if you will, wah-wah — to the surface and made them ornate. It told the story of a child psychologist, played by Jennifer Lopez, who enters the mind of a comatose serial killer, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, to find clues that could save his final victim. The spectacle and drama comes in the heroine navigating and surviving baroque and broken psychic terrain, a woman-hating environment that threatens to swallow her up and destroy her. It was The Silence of the Lambs by way of Inception, or for deep-cut geeks, Dreamscape.

Emerald City is, in essence, the same story with the same goals, and perhaps knowingly so. Once again, a woman — and a culture of women — finds herself trapped in a warped world that reflects the consciousness of the man who rules it. Once again, everything doubles as genre commentary: The show’s true subject is the legacy of The Wizard of Oz. And once again, D’Onofrio plays a pompous seethe of male rage whose imagination is an oppressive world for women.

Singh’s Oz isn’t a Technicolor dreamscape and myth-factory for heroic development. It’s a dystopia of medieval villages, steampunk city-states, and desolate, junky landscapes. The winged monkeys are filmmaking, film-projecting robot drones, the soldiers are armored knights without much chivalry, and colossal automatons stride and loom holding big-ass phallic spears.

Emerald City’s Emerald City is a meaningful construction: Singh makes use of locations in Barcelona designed by Antoni Gaudí, a brilliant architect, syncretic yet idiosyncratic, who really did imprint his imagination on a city, but to beautiful effect. Singh also adds onto and then obscures those locations with bland computer-generated imagery — a desecration that may or may not be intentional.

The run-amuck geek responsible for Oz’s uglification is The Wizard, Frank Morgan, played by D’Onofrio, and like like most aspects of Emerald City, his character is layered with allusions. His origin story, marked by resentments and a yearning for significance, unfolds over time. He’s an explorer-conquistador by way of Hercules vs. The Amazons, an accidental tourist who bumbled into Oz — once a matriarchal society ruled by a sisterhood of witches — and won the hearts and minds of its populace by defeating a menace known as The Beast Forever using technology, brute force, and gross deception. He then remade their culture in his hideous image and set himself up as a He-Man king, master of his own private pocket universe, one where magic has been outlawed and the witches have been marginalized or enslaved. Basically, Oz has been taken over by the incarnation of #Gamergate, and D’Onofrio —rocking a beard, potbelly, and royal robes — plays him as a puffed-up secular pope. He also makes him transparently pathetic, imbuing Frank with vulnerability and neediness that would seem to soften his evil, but the choice actually explains it; being underestimated is at the root of his pathology and what makes him dangerous.

The only roles that remain for the women of Oz express Frank’s view of women. Glinda the Good Witch (Joely Richardson) is a cold Madonna who supplies him with an order of virginal advisors in nun-like garb. Her sibling, West (Ana Ularu), is a whore who runs a brothel that serves the wizard and his soldiers. She dulls her pain with an addiction to a drug that’s absorbed through the fingers and stains them the color of pulpy newsprint. The witches spend most of Emerald City judging each other and fighting with each other instead of revolting against the true enemy, although at least one of them is playing a long game of rebellion. In a story in which the masculine is corrupt and the feminine is redemptive and both are prisoners to corrupt tropes, the most pivotal character (identity withheld due to spoiler) is a gender-bending Peter Pan wildling who doesn’t know if he or she wants to be male or female, child or adult.

A certain portion of the audience is likely to see Frank as a Trump-like figure. If that reading annoys you, well, get used to it. I suspect every show in 2017 – and perhaps over the next four years — that offers an authoritarian male antagonist with a whiff of flim-flam to him will inspire the comparison. (Next up: Jude Law in HBO’s The Young Pope and even Neil Patrick Harris in Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.) Singh and the writers surely couldn’t have anticipated Trump when they made Emerald City, but they honor the source material by getting political with it. Baum’s books contained allegories about the suffrage movement and critique of the man’s world. Emerald City has been shaped to capture an abundance of topical resonance, maybe too much: diversity, cultural appropriation, guns, the legacy of expansionism, imperialism, colonialism, and abuses of authority of all kinds.

But what I see most in Singh’s construction of Oz is a metaphorical reflection of pop culture itself, a realm where geeks rule and fandom abides, and not always for the best. Everything about this wiggy and weird Wizard is winking in several directions at once, to his nature as a phony and to Emerald City’s meta nature. Frank Morgan is the name of the actor who played The Wizard (and many other roles, including humbug showman Professor Marvel) in The Wizard of Oz. Late in the season, he’s linked via Easter egg to Orson Welles, an interesting idol to hang on him. Welles is the paterfamilias of movie auteurs (and marvelous hoaxsters; see: “The War of the Worlds”), revered by post-’60s brat pack directors, including the founding fathers of boy toy blockbuster, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. He was also the grand master of male anti-heroes. Charles Foster Kane. Harry Lime. Macbeth. Falstaff. And, of course, Unicron from The Transformers movie, a planet that devours other planets. D’Onofrio has played Welles twice before, in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and his own short film, Five Minutes, Mr. Welles.

The Wizard, then, is the world’s worst Welles fan. For him, Oz is —to borrow a Welles line about Hollywood — “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had,” but one that only caters to him. He’s science fiction incarnate, but fantastical sci-fi, the kind less interested in scientific possibility and futurism and more interested in far-out wish fulfillment. He’s more Star Wars than Star Trek, and it’s interesting that this sham artificer maintains his hold on his culture with bad robots, stormtroopers, and monolithic marvels. Emerald City is one more pop culture thing that takes something that’s generally considered kid stuff — superhero comics, YA sci-fi/fantasy, toys —and turns it into adult entertainment that’s devoid of innocence and cynical about heroism. But you wonder if maybe the show is casting shade on that practice, too. The story builds to a children’s crusade — but comprised of all girls —orchestrated by a magical mother to restore a world of enchantment. Take back your playgrounds, kids! Take them all back!

Rico Torres/NBC

At a time when Hollywood is questing to improve in the area of diversity, it’s a bitter irony that The Wizard of Oz, the mold for blockbuster heroic fantasy, featured a female protagonist. Emerald City reflects that disenfranchisement in various ways. The show’s Dorothy, played by Adria Arjona (Person of Interest, True Detective), is not the brave, righteous, dreamy teen we know from the Judy Garland musical, but a young woman alienated from every possible world she might call home. She’s initially framed as something timely, a refugee in need of sanctuary, spirited away from a land in crisis and entrusted to a kindly rural couple for her protection. Of course, there are shades of Luke Skywalker, and perhaps the filmmakers are paying homage — or nurturing some critique — by placing her in a town called Lucas. We meet her properly as an adult, still living with her guardians. She’s a mystery to herself, struggling with abandonment and attachment issues. It’s on the night that she finally sets out to discover the truth of her heritage that the twister comes to carry her away.

Dorothy stands for many things, but what takes hold once she gets to Oz is a deconstruction of her archetype. Until Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz was the model expression of a narrative structure known as “The Hero’s Journey” that informs so much Hollywood storytelling. So you watch Emerald City expecting Dorothy to gain maturity and resolve her identity issues over the course an adventure to liberate Oz from The Wizard. But Singh’s Dorothy is no old-fashioned hero, even though she’d dressed for the part: Prior to the tornado, she stumbles into a crime scene and tangles with some cops who may or may not want her dead, and when climatic chaos whisks her away, she lands in Oz wearing a policeman’s coat and gun, which becomes crucial to the plot.

Her makeover into something ironic, a cop who looks like a cop but isn’t a cop, makes her a symbol for anti-hero fashion, not to mention current skepticism about real-world law enforcement agents, be they presidents or police. Singh plays to this. At one point, Dorothy gets out of a jam with a wicked-seeming witch — a black woman — by tricking her into shooting herself with that aforementioned gun. Upon the witch’s death, Dorothy acquires her power and briefly tries to front as her successor. All of this is depicted as a kind of illicit cultural appropriation. The symbol of the witch’s power that Dorothy now wears isn’t ruby slippers, but rather crimson ribbons for the hands that come and go, like the phantom blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands. Decode that, America!

Dorothy isn’t a bad person, per se, but what I found most interesting about her heroic journey is that she (and we) doesn’t really know if her right-seeming deeds are really the right thing to do in the context of the world she’s found herself in. Those actions include saving two endangered children, both of whom have more going on than meets the eye, and saving and rehabbing her Scarecrow (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He, too, is another symbol of confusion and cynicism about heroic virtue, as is the analog to The Cowardly Lion (whose identity I don’t wish to spoil), and as are The Wizard’s knights, heartless and hollow tin men. As much as the culture that The Wizard has created is toxic to women, it’s also degrading to everyone, including one boy who dies and comes back to life… as a cyborg killing machine. For this revenant iron man, the metamorphosis isn’t marvelous, it’s Kafkaesque; he’s been dehumanized into a zombie action figure.

Most “Hero’s Journey” storytelling ends with the protagonist gaining transforming catharsis — reconciliation with a parent or loved one, wisdom to deal with the vagaries of reality and the fragility of life, revived spirit and improved identity. They become more human, not less, and hopefully, we, the reader/audience, do, too. Intrinsic to the formula, though, is the return home. The lands of make-believe are places to visit, not linger, let alone conquer. Keep that in mind when you get to Emerald City’s final act, as characters debate between staying or going (and going back), find themselves confronted with a literal shadow of death, and struggle with a lack of personal resolution. The climax, ambiguous and existential, was one of the things I liked best about Emerald City; it feels like our moment.

Emerald City’s symbols and scenarios flick at the appeal of fantasy. In an age so stormy with chaos, who wouldn’t want to bliss out forever and ever somewhere over the rainbow? But I do wonder if our popular fiction is failing us, too, and more, that there’s something wonky about what fan culture wants — and doesn’t want — from the things they binge. I’m guilty of using and abusing pop culture as much as anyone. I think about it all the time, so maybe I’m just projecting my own preoccupations onto Emerald City. The show’s yellow brick road — dopey fool’s gold — is a symbol that speaks to me, challenges me. My hits of “Hero’s Journey” story should be empowering escapes, not deadening ones. They should be round-trip flights that bring me back to the world energized to engage it, not run-away permanent vacations. Remember the lesson of The Wizard of Oz: There’s no place like home. And home needs us, now, more than ever.

Have I made Emerald City interesting to you? If so, here’s your twist ending: I’m not sure how much you’ll be entertained by it. As far as thrilling reinventions of The Wizard of Oz go, it’s no Wicked or The Wiz. The production values are impressive and the images are frequently stunning, including a final battle that pits The Wizard’s army against a plague of metamorphic locusts. But as is often the case with Singh, the drama is more static than kinetic — a consequence, perhaps, of his painterly symbolism. Arjona fails to make this very complicated Dorothy as compelling as she should be; she struggles to juggle and sell the array of responses — wonder, confusion, fear — she should have to Oz. There are many subplots and tangents, and not all of them are interesting. They contribute to a feeling of a season that doesn’t need to be 10 episodes long. The first two hours are a rocky, labored introduction, and I was ready to skip to the end by episode 4. Singh’s opus isn’t a musical, but it might have been more amusing and lively as one. I can imagine the Moulin Rouge! approach, using pop mash-ups to match the pastiche construction. The Wizard does like to zone out to Pink Floyd, which is ballpark appropriate: Emerald City is TV as a prog-rock concept album, trippy and turgid. C

Emerald City debuts Friday at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.

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