Saturday, January 14, 2017

Emerald City, episode 3 (Shaun Cassidy Productions, Oedipus Productions, Mount Moriah, NBC Universal, 2017)

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

I put on the next episode of the NBC-TV series Emerald City even though I’d found the opening two-hour event the week before (actually two one-hour episodes glommed together to provide a special two-hour kickoff for this 10-episode mini-series) virtually unwatchable, partly because there was something else I wanted to watch at 10 p.m. and partly because Charles had told me on our way back from dinner at Denny’s that he had liked it considerably better than I had. Well, episode 3 of Emerald City, “Mistress — New — Mistress,” turned out to be more of the same indigestible (at least to me) mixture as the previous two: Dorothy Gale (Adria Ariona, doing the best she can with a basically impossible role — I’d really like to see her in something that actually makes sense sometime!) is a young nurse who has been magically transported to Oz, where the Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio, still looking like he’s gone undercover and is hanging out with a group of Oz re-enactors to solve a crime in his old role as Detective Robert Goren on Law and Order: Criminal Intent) rules with an iron hand and wants her executed for reasons writer David Schulner never bothers to explain. There was a quite amusing in-joke in a scene in which the Wizard announces that he, too, is a transplant to Oz and his original non-Wizard name was “Frank Morgan” — the actor who played the Wizard in the classic 1939 film with Judy Garland — though when he started prattling on about the existential threat facing Oz from the ill-defined monster called “The Beast Within,” I joked, “That’s not the beast within! That’s W. C. Fields! He’s still pissed off at having lost the role of the Wizard in 1939!” (Fields was set to play the Wizard of Oz when at the last minute his home studio, Universal, called him back for retakes on the film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, so Frank Morgan got to play the Wizard and Fields was bitter about it for the remaining seven years of his life.) There are also a couple of shots featuring a nice-looking steampunk monorail. I don’t mind that the people in charge of this film (including ex-teen idol Shaun Cassidy, whose production company was one of at least three involved in making it) made Dorothy’s dog Toto a German shepherd instead of the original Cairn terrier — that was about the least of their sins against L. Frank Baum.

I did mind that their treatment of Tip, the character who in the Baum books is a boy who goes through a gender change and becomes Princess Ozma (according to Baum’s biographers, this was a bit of wishful thinking on his part because he wanted a daughter and he and his wife had five sons instead), reversed his “real” identity and ended up being a less progressive portrayal of a Transgender character than Baum’s over a century ago: in this version Tip is really a girl all along, only an enchantment turned him into a boy and then another magic spell turned him back, and when his (straight cisgender male) friend kisses him, suddenly finding her sexually attractive now that he’s a she, she slaps him and he crashes through a railing and falls to his death. The main intrigue in this episode is that, having killed the Wicked Witch of the East, Dorothy is now in possession of — not silver or ruby slippers this time, but bejeweled gloves that supposedly give her the power to control the weather and take over the “Elements.” This is represented by a permanent cyclone hanging over the Witch’s castle, and a skeptical Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who takes the place of Baum’s Scarecrow — oddly the writers haven’t yet concocted equivalents for the Tin Woodsman or the Cowardly Lion, though I once worked out an idea for a science-fiction version of The Wizard of Oz in which the Scarecrow would be an animate plant, the Lion a sentient beast and the Tin Man a robot); instead they treat us to such weird spectacles as three young women committing suicide by jumping on what look like bungee cords (according to the synopsis, they were prostitutes working for the Wicked Witch of the West, but that wasn’t at all clear in the show itself) until they hang themselves; a circus caravan in which Dorothy and Lucas hide out until it’s stopped by the Wizard’s guards (remember that Lucas used to be one of the Wizard’s guards himself); and a heavy-set Black man who guards the Wicked Witch of the East’s castle and threatens to kill Dorothy unless she shows she can control the Elements just like his late mistress did. The people who’ve liked this show have hailed it for combining The Wizard of Oz with Game of Thrones, and while I know nothing about Game of Thrones (I’ve never read any of George R. R. Martin’s source novels or seen the shows based on them) it sounds like the attempt to graft an ultra-serious and rather mean-spirited sword-and-sorcery fantasy onto The Wizard of Oz — and, at least for my taste, it simply isn’t working; despite some flashes of real imagination, it’s just another dreary story whose writers are making one of the classic mistakes in the fantasy genre: because anything can theoretically happen, they make anything they like happen regardless of whether it makes dramatic sense or keeps the plot coherent.