Film & TV

REVIEW: Emerald City is a poppy-fueled journey through a different kind of Oz


The comparisons with HBO’s Game of Thrones were aplenty. But come its release date, it became pretty clear that NBC’s Emerald City is nothing like anything on TV.

It starts out uninterestingly — if you’ve read the L. Frank Baum novel, you’d think you know what you’re getting yourself into watching the first episode. You’d come in with pretty average expectations and assume you know where it’s all going. But the fact that Dorothy (Adria Arjona) here is not a teenager and is of Mexican descent in real life should have tipped you off. The first episode is a rude awakening: this isn’t the story you know. Not anymore.

Dorothy (Adria Arjona)


Toto is not a tiny toy dog — he’s a muscular and fiercly loyal German Shepherd. The Scarecrow without a brain, whom Dorothy encounters first among all her would-be friends, is a scruffy soldier (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who was left for dead. He has amnesia. The Tin Man is human boy Jack (Gerran Howell) who loses his heart, literally. And the Cowardly Lion is first a boy, then a young girl. Intrigued yet?

The appeal of Emerald City begins when you realize that the show is going to make you guess what’s happening, all the time. Apart from trying to figure out who each character is based on, it’s going to confuse you with nuances that seem disjointed from the theme, but turn out to be significant.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Lucas


One such nuance was the Wizard’s out-of-place inflections, which at once clues the viewer in that Emerald City is going to go with the original Wizard storyline, although not in the way you’d expect. The revelation of the Wizard’s true origins comes with some comedy. Not the LOL kind, the “Aha” kind — via a walkman playing Pink Floyd’s Breathe. A sort of joke within the fandom, the scene is a nod to what the Times Union calls one of the earliest memes every made: a homemade video of the 1939 Wizard of Oz film synched to the Pink Floyd album “Dark Side of the Moon.” This is also when the Wizard recognizes Dorothy, who snuck into his castle, and I swear we both said “Oh my God” at the same time.

This is where comparisons with other TV shows with epic storylines end. By the very nature of its chosen plot, you can’t expect Emerald City to stick to a period, even a theme. It jumps from modern concepts and modern gadgets to pretty archaic ones. In the episode “Science and Magic,” Dorothy whips out an iPhone as he tells Lucas, a name she has given the “Scarecrow,” that there is no magic where she comes from, only science. She proceeds to make him put the earphones on and plays Bill Withers’ Aint No Sunshine. It’s during moments like these that Emerald City succeeds in its attempts at relevance, something that can be a challenge when reimagining a 117-year-old story.

Tip (Jordan Loughran) with Glinda and West


Others are more political. From one of the show’s most fascinating characters, Tip (Jordan Loughran), comes its best line so far: “So you’re saying, my only choice as a girl, is nun or whore?” She says this to West (Ana Ularu) and Glinda (Joely Richardson), the two remaining cardinal witches fighting over her. Given that Tip was, in the beginning, a boy, makes this line even more important, attacking gender stereotypes from the point of view of someone who is just realizing it and did not want it.

Ana Ularu as West


The witches, on the other hand, are portrayed as human beings with human emotions and ulterior motives. There is no good-witch-bad-witch in Emerald City, only witches that are on your side and not. Glinda is terrible. She is the picture of “goodness,” white is her color, she is diplomatic and says all the right things, but she’s cold and calculating and power hungry. You’d almost feel sorry for her sister, West, who is for all intents and purposes, “wicked.” She’s an unkempt, opium addict whose runs a brothel, yet despite appearances and actions, shows more humanity than her good sister.

Joely Richardson as Glinda

Dorothy meets them all at a crucial time, when Oz is bracing itself for the coming of the Beast Forever, a cool name for an unknown catastrophe that threatens to wipe out civilization. They all think it’s a force of nature, but Anna, the Wizard’s trusted advisor, says it will have a brain and a heart, and will be possessed of relentless strength. “If it has a heart, you can kill it,” she says. We can only guess what that must mean. With Emerald City, we’ll never know until its right in front of us, whirling us back and away to the land of Oz.

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Emerald City is now streaming on iflix.


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