Saturday, January 7, 2017

Emerald City, episode 1 (NBC Universal Television, filmed 2016, released 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles came home last night just after 9 p.m., in time to watch one of the dullest and most singularly unentertaining two hours of TV we’ve ever subjected ourselves to: Emerald City, yet another attempt to rehash the characters and situations of Lyman Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and his many sequelae into something that would “grab” modern audiences. NBC Universal Television not only aired this atrocity but produced it, and they hired someone they billed as “the visionary director Tarsem Singh” to direct all 10 of its limited-run episodes. Tarsem Singh is an [East] Indian director who made his U.S. debut in 1991 (at age 30) doing the video for the R.E.M. song “Losing My Religion,” and since then he’s made movies with titles like The Cell (which synopsized as, “An FBI agent persuades a social worker, who is adept with a new experimental technology, to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer in order to learn where he has hidden his latest kidnap victim” — can you say The Silence of the Lambs knockoff?), The Fall, The Immortals and Mirror Mirror. The opening episode, “The Beast Forever,” was written by Matthew Arnold and Josh Friedman — L. Frank Baum is credited only with creating the characters — and in their version Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) is an adult woman (something that’s been done to Dorothy in at least two previous Oz films, Larry Semon’s 1925 silent The Wizard of Oz — in which Semon’s wife, Dorothy Dawn, played her — and 1978’s The Wiz), a nurse working in the town of Lucas, Kansas.

This Dorothy’s big ambitions are to get into medical school and become a doctor (only sexism keeps getting in her way) and to reconnect with her birth mother, who lives in a trailer on the outside of town and has stayed out of her life since turning her over to her Uncle Henry and Auntie Em (you remember) to raise. Only on the night she goes to see her mom a cyclone came up (considerably more convincingly than the wind sock they used for the classic 1939 film) and deposited her in a much less friendly or welcoming Oz than the one Baum wrote and the 1939 film depicted. (Before Dorothy leaves for Oz we hear a bit of a cheesy soft-rock song that can’t help but fall behind the inevitable comparisons with “Over the Rainbow.”) She’s blown to Oz not in a house but in a car, and when she arrives her car runs down the Wicked Witch of the East (identified in the cast list only as “East” and played, like her sister “West,” by a Black woman made up as much as possible to resemble David Bowie’s wife Iman) — only instead of Munchkinland she lands in something called “Freehold,” and instead of being glad that she’s killed “East” they’re pissed at her because — as we find out about an hour through this show’s two-hour running time — “East” had consigned a lot of people into a magical prison that keeps them essentially drowning in quicksand forever, neither sinking and dying nor being able to escape, and by killing the witch Dorothy has removed the one person who would have known how to take the spell off the unfortunate prisoners. The tribal people (who come off more like an overenthusiastic bunch of J. R. R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings re-enactors than anything else) tell Dorothy to leave or they’ll execute her, and they send her out not on a yellow brick road, but a dirt road that looks yellow only because it’s covered in poppy pollen, which she’s solemnly instructed not to breathe. Along the way she meets and frees, not a scarecrow, but Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a former knight in the Royal Guards of the Wizard of Oz (Vincent D’Onofrio, whom Singh worked with before on The Cell but who — especially seeing him in his bearded Wizard guise just a night after seeing him as Detective Robert Goren in a Law and Order: Criminal Intent rerun — kept making me think he was a well-disguised undercover cop busting a drug ring of people using the Oz character identities for cover) who’s been badly wounded.

Dorothy uses her medical knowledge, and particularly information about herbs, to bring Lucas to a semblance of life, only he’s poisoned by Mombi (Fiona Shaw), which in the original books was the name of the Wicked Witch of the West but here is a free-lance medicine woman who’s kept two young males imprisoned in her home behind a thicket of bramble bushes which serve both to keep them inside and others out. One of the boys Dorothy frees from Mombi’s spell is Tip (Jordan Loughran), who in the movie’s best scene fulfills his destiny from the Baum books and transitions into Princess Ozma … well, into a woman, anyway, and I give Messrs. Arnold and Friedman big-time credit for using Baum’s pioneering Transgender character (created, Baum’s biographers say, out of wish-fulfillment because he wanted a daughter and all five of his real-life kids were boys). Unfortunately, I don’t give them or their “visionary” director much credit for anything else; the Los Angeles Times reviewer thought this show owed more to Game of Thrones than The Wizard of Oz, and though we haven’t watched any episodes of Game of Thrones (that’s what you get for subscribing to basic cable only and missing the premium shows you have to pay extra for — and which are so strewn about the “content” companies that if you got the bright idea to “cut the cord,” cancel your cable service and watch TV through the Internet instead, you’d probably end up spending more than your current cable bill if you signed up for all the services that offered programs you actually wanted to watch), it did seem to be drawing on it and also the Harry Potter books. One conceit is that the Wizard of Oz’s court is sexually corrupt, and as a result the Wizard keeps trying to recruit women staffers from Glinda’s (Joely Richardson) girls instead — only they keep getting corrupted. The show goes wrong in virtually every conceivable way, including a dank, dark green-and-brown overall look (except for a couple of scenes that go instead for the steely-grey of the Underworld movies, a new one of which just came out in theatres) that inevitably led me to joke, “I have a feeling we’re not in Technicolor anymore!”

The acting is the stiff stand-and-recite stuff we’re all too used to in fantasy movies, in which the poor players realize early on that they’re not going to be able to create multidimensional characterizations because the script isn’t going to let them. Singh’s direction is just dull, with far too few action scenes that might provide an excuse for this movie’s existence, and the script is so convoluted (a recurring problem with fantasies, especially post-Tolkien) it’s virtually impossible to keep track of who is who, who’s doing what to whom and what side they’re on. Charles, who recently downloaded electronic versions of virtually all L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books and plowed through them, recognized some elements from later post-Wizard books in the series — including the mechanical drone, run by clockwork, that spies on Dorothy and Lucas in a key early scene — and the film had some clever steampunk gimmicks, including the authentic reconstructions of Alessandro Volta’s original wet-cell batteries that provide electricity to the otherwise quite dowdy dwelling of the Wizard. But for the most part it was just two hours of dreary dullness, using Baum’s characters just for commercial appeal and utterly failing to bring his world to life — especially since, as Charles reminded me, Baum himself had been quite clear that his intent was to lighten up the fairy-tale genre, to play up the whimsy and humor and play down the grimness and gore it had inherited from the Brothers Grimm and all those folk tales they’d collected from German peasants. This show, which NBC aired just after the first episode in the final season of their series Grimm (in which a modern-day police department faced Grimm-like monsters and other supernatural creatures), brought back in all the gloom and darkness Baum had wanted to purge from his fairy tale, and it doesn’t take long before you realize that the writers and director aren’t interested in creating a genuinely new and insightful version of the Oz tales (the way Gregory Maguire was when he created the book — later the musical — Wicked) but simply exploiting the continuing commercial appeal of Baum’s characters and using them for very different, and much drearier, fictional purposes!