Just in time for the new year, NBC has decided to pick up on the success of ABC’s Once Upon A Time, and the echoing, milder success of SyFy’s Tin Man and Alice, with Emerald City; a cleverly updated and serialized retelling of The Wizard of Oz.
The story follows Dorothy Gale, a nurse from Lucas, Kansas, left on the doorstep of her adoptive parents by a mysterious woman named Karen, who still lives in a trailer on the outskirts of town. Dorothy has always known this, and refused any contact with her out of anger and hurt that Karen hasn’t tried to be in her life either (although it is in no way confirmed that Karen is actually Dorothy’s mother).
Finally, after some prodding from her adoptive mother, Dorothy decides to confront Karen. She drives out to her trailer even as a tornado forms in the distance, and finds Karen in the storm cellar, bleeding to death from an unexplained wound.
Dorothy wants to call for help, but Karen begs her not to and tells her to run. Before Dorothy can do anything, a cop shows up anyway, and pulls a gun on Dorothy, as she’s covered in Karen’s blood, and running around in the storm. Before she can explain, he is immediately swept away into oblivion by the tornado. It happens.
Dorothy takes refuge in his abandoned police car (we’ll just sail past the part where she could have gone back into the storm cellar), and the car, complete with K-9 german shepherd, is also swept away, and crash lands in a snowy forest – right on top of a woman in a red dress.
Horrified, Dorothy tries to help her, but it’s too late. Gathering the dog and supplies, Dorothy sets off into the woods, and is eventually captured by the locals, a scary-looking race of warriors. She tries to explain that she means no harm and just wants to get home, but they have discovered that she has killed the woman in the red dress – who is apparently the benevolent witch of the East. Wanting revenge, and believing that only a bad witch could have killed another witch, they torture Dorothy until she finally convinces one of them of her plight.
Someone tells her that The Wizard is the only one who might know how to get her home, and offers to show her how to get there. As they walk, he explains that this land is called Oz. Oz is currently rebuilding after being destroyed years ago by a mysterious entity known as The Beast Forever, who appeared out of nowhere, causing massive death and destruction, and was finally driven away by the man now known as The Wizard.
When they reach the edge of the woods, the man says he dares not go any farther, and directs Dorothy down a path made yellow with poppy pollen, telling her it will lead her to the Emerald City, and The Wizard’s palace.
As she walks – with the german shepherd now named Toto, as it means ‘dog’ in the warrior’s native language – she comes upon a man beaten, tied to a cross, and left to die in a field. She cuts him down and cleans him up, but he has no memory of who is is or how he got there. He and Dorothy have instant chemistry (of course), and she christens him Lucas, after her hometown. Believing The Wizard may be able to help him get his memories back, and having nowhere else to go, Lucas joins Dorothy on her quest.
Meanwhile in the Emerald City, everyone is low-key freaking out because of the tornado that brought Dorothy. They don’t understand what happened, but they’re worried it could signal the return of the Beast Forever. The Wizard confidently tells the people that he is powerful enough to handle anything, but he knows the magic he used against the beast the first time is now dormant and will not work again – something he is keeping hidden, even from the council of nun-like women who advise him, except for newcomer Ana, who is particularly intrepid, and discovers the truth for herself.
These nun-like councilors are groomed and trained by Glinda, the sterile, stark, and heavy-handed Mistress of the North, while her sister, Mistress West, is a bohemian, frizzy-haired poppy addict running a brothel on the other side of town. They both have a strained relationship with The Wizard, who distrusts them, but values their power and knowledge, and hopes they will help him stop whatever is coming.
For my money, Dorothy and Lucas’ magical mystery tour around Oz together is television gold. There’s amazing scenery, mistaken identity, sword fights, traveling circuses of magic folk, rescuing each other from danger, witty banter, and sexual tension around the campfire.
But to be frank, I care very little about the bigger storylines. Everything taking place in the Emerald City is overwrought, convoluted, and wordy, against a backdrop of the same awful and constant green screen and needlessly ridiculous costumes that killed Once Upon A Time for me.
I can’t even tell you the details of their political unrest or how magic fits into their world, and I find myself tuning out when Dorothy and Lucas aren’t involved. When they ultimately reach the city, I’ll be interested to see if that improves the storyline there, or sinks the show completely.
It’s just personal preference, but I was hoping the loose and modern retelling of the story would make the Emerald City more of a metaphor. A man with amnesia and a tough small town nurse are an awesome, down-to-earth take on Dorothy and the Scarecrow. The recently-introduced little boy with prosthetic limbs and heart is a great take on the Tin Man. A race of warriors living in the woods is an edgy change on the Munchkins.
I even like how the witches are turned from the original story, with Glinda seeming “good” as the uptight maintainer of order, and West as the hedonistic outcast who’s only “wicked” because she sees the corruption brewing and won’t take part.
But the completely CGI city, populated by flat characters who speak in long monologues, referencing made-up events with made-up words isn’t particularly new or interesting. I would have preferred to see the city maintain the realistic feel of the rest of the story, and be less caught up in its own spectacle.
To answer the original question, though, Emerald City is still worth watching. It’s fun and colorful and wittier than you might imagine, with a limitless story structure that could run indefinitely- so long as it doesn’t get bogged down in its own mechanics.
Emerald City airs Fridays At 9/8c On NBC