Get ready for it. Sitting down? Ok, here goes: “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
But c’mon. I had to say it.
It’s the golden era of TV, and I feel fine. And you know what? You should too. There is so much NOISE everywhere, I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but there is a lot of really great television being made. And I’m using the term a little loosely, because I’m including all long-form storytelling–not just the networks and the big cable players, but also original content from Netflix and Hulu and the like. Man, it’s a great time for a TV fan to be alive. Doesn’t it feel like a renaissance to you? Doesn’t it feel like some of the promise captured in the early days–I’m talking about the first Twilight Zone days–is being delivered?
Today’s review is on a program from one our big networks, NBC. Hear ye, hear ye, milords and ladies. I’d like to discuss Emerald City.
Spoiler: I love it.
Why? Oh, do let’s discuss.
The adaptive approach of taking an old story and turning it on its ear needs to be done a certain way in order to be done well. It has to be done boldly, taking no prisoners, it has to be a turn that people want, and, of course, it has to be done in a generally ‘good’ (talking production values here) way. For my money (which isn’t much, considering I don’t pay for NBC), Emerald City has hit the nail on the head. You’ve got your witches, and they’ve got magic, but they’re deliciously and sensually reimagined. You’ve got your wizard, and he has his tricks, but the rot consuming his soul has taken on a whole new level of horrific stench. And, of course, you’ve got Dorothy, in what is perhaps the biggest shift from the Metro-Goldwin-Mayer telling of Baum’s classic tale, from a bumbling girl with no agency to a strong, confident woman who somehow still manages to capture the requisite naivité her character demands.
It’s an interesting choice, because there have been other recent retellings of Oz that have failed to wow and inspire. I’m thinking specifically of RHI & The SciFi Channel’s 2007 Tin Man, a somewhat quirkier adaptation with Zooey Deschanel aptly cast as Dorothy. Feels like yesterday, doesn’t it? But apparently a lot can change in ten years of TV. Shows that feature wholesale politically motivated slaughter in a fantasy world, or a high school chemistry teacher selling meth, or a band of survivors fending off zombies and other bands of survivors can evidently dominate the industry. Welcome to the age of grimdark. If that term is new to you, it means exactly what you might surmise.
In my view, the tone of Emerald City is hitting a sweet spot between grimdark fantasy (thank you, Mr. Martin) and a number of popular tropes, including the chosen one (thank you, Ms. Rowling) and characters with ambiguous morality (thank you… life as we know it? Post-post-modernity? Hmm). Dorothy acts as if she is convinced she has the moral imperative. But what is it? No idea. Glinda looks as if she is the good witch. But does she act like it? Shady, shady. West is so beautifully humanized it’s impossible not to sympathize with her, even if she does have a dark side (Wicked, anyone?). Meanwhile there is war, intrigue, murder, deception, plots. Ev. The KINGDOM OF EV, people. And Mombi’s back (anyone else love the 1985 fantasy/mystery/horror flick Return to Oz as much as I did as a child?). NBC is pulling from the source–from the Baum books, not just from the old musical. And they’re spinning everything.
And then there’s Dorothy.
I wasn’t wowed with the show in the first episode. I didn’t really start to fall in love with the storytelling until around 2 or 3. But one of the reasons I kept watching at first was Adria Arjona’s convincing performance. It’s just great. And here’s why: it’s very difficult, in my opinion, to present a woman as naive, innocent, and lacking any degree of agency without coming off as ridiculously sexist. That’s not to say it isn’t done all the time–of course it is–and I would argue those portrayals are inherently problematic for just that reason. But somehow Arjona’s Dorothy is not gendered by these characteristics; they are part of her character, not her sex. It’s wildly refreshing, sort of in a way that makes me hate to even bring it up, because it’s the last thing on your mind while you watch. You just see Dorothy, in all her strength, confidence, and at times, rashness. Neither do these characteristics ungender her or make her seem masculine. The whole discussion seems moot, as it should be in the first place. She is, first and foremost, a person.
So I’m obviously a fan, and I could give you more reasons why (mostly involving the wizard and the witches, which are all excellently conceived and written), but I don’t want to spoil it for you! Go watch for yourself. A few back-episodes are available at nbc.com, and the entire season is on Hulu.
I’ve just one great fear, which is that the network will decide that, for the pricetag and the primetime slot, the show just isn’t mainstream enough–and they’ll pull the plug. How could they, you ask? Oh, it’s happened. Recently. On NBC. Everyone knows Hannibal was one of the best things on TV at least for a handful of episodes. And while one could raise a few complaints about Dracula, I for one was sorely disappointed that they didn’t pick it up for a second season. There’s clearly a demographic for this slightly darker, fantasy-inspired programming–one needs only take a look at HBO for that. Perhaps NBC just needs to work a little harder to court them over to a little free network viewing.