Emerald City Pilot: The Wizard of Oz Remake That Tries to Do Too Much

An assortment of characters arrayed in front of a gate. The doorway in the middle of the gate opens onto a yellow brick road, where we see Dorothy and a dog walking into the distance. Words read "Emerald City."

Image: NBC

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Dorothy is on her way to meet her biological mother–and instead finds a dead body and a storm that transports her to another world. Her arrival throws the local power plays askew, and makes her a target. Still, there’s only one thing she can think to do. Follow the yellow brick road to the Wizard of Oz, so he can help her find a way home.

Series: First season airing.

I’ve Watched: The first episode.

Verdict: It’s uneven. Some moments are tedious, other are actually pretty good.

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I tend to be wary of portal fantasies–stories where someone from our world falls into a fantasy world. That’s because:

  1. Those stories tend to have a little too much wish-fulfillment for me.
  2. It’s hard to portray a character stripped of everything that’s familiar to her without falling into the same repetitive, tacky tropes.
  3. I personally enjoy it more when my protagonists aren’t left completely floundering in a new world with most of their old skills completely useless. I don’t want the character made circumstantially incompetent in comparison to everyone else.

But Emerald City is based on The Wizard of Oz, which perhaps raised my expectations a little too high. I haven’t read the book and it’s been awhile since I saw the movie. But from what I remember, that story avoided the portal fantasy pitfall listed above. The point of The Wizard of Oz isn’t to leave a boring life and build a new one in a fantasy world, it’s to find a way out of a strange place. The musical elements and comedic tone meant the story didn’t really have to handle much angst from Dorothy. And rather than being surrounded by people much more competent than she is, Dorothy picks up fellow travelers who all have similar problems to herself–they’re all focused on improving their greatest weaknesses.

Emerald City is different, partly because it wants to be a gritter, more epic take on the story. It still does okay, but doesn’t completely avoid the classical portal fantasy pitfalls. Mostly, the problem is in the second point: it’s hard to portray the realism of a character having everything she knows stripped away from her. And if that doesn’t come off as real, it makes the whole story feel just a little off.

The first half of the pilot was weighed down by that, and by a few other things that made the story hard to fall into. The transitions threw me–things happen too abruptly, without enough lead-up. The dialogue is also a bit off sometimes. Especially with the instant-they-meet love-interest, whose banter struck me as cringe-y.

But then again,some scenes worked well individually. Whenever the Witch of the West mouthed off to anyone, that was sure to be a good moment. The animosity between her and Glinda, even though they were nominal allies, really stands out. When Dorothy comes across an herbalist witch keeping a boy locked up against his will (she claimed for his protection), the tension in those scenes was good. And then we’d switch to another scene, and the show would overload on the theatrics.

Emerald City seems to want to be edgy, but doesn’t always put in the work to add depths to those edgy concepts. I’m sure another story could take ideas like ‘the yellow brick road is made of opium’ or ‘the Wicked Witch of the West operates a brothel’ and use them in a way that’s interesting. But in this show, there’re just kind of there. Maybe something different will be done with them in the other 9 remaining episodes, but the groundwork that’s been laid isn’t encouraging. 

Even if the show resisted the urge to sensationalize every now and again, I’m not sure that this particular combination of The Wizard of Oz with epic fantasy works that well. Emerald City is trying to tell two different stories. One is about Dorothy, upended from her world and navigating another one in order to get home. The other one is about the political divides in a land where The Wizard of Oz stands against the witches, banning magic from his realm. Both of these stories would be stronger if they were told separately instead of together. Or if Emerald City waited to tell the Wizard-versus-witches struggle until after Dorothy finishes adventuring and becomes a player.

Overall, it feels like the show bit off a bit more than it could chew, trying to be too many things at once. So is it worth watching? I honestly don’t know. The tedious parts really are. But it’s not any worse than the average show, and it really has its moments. The second half of the pilot was definitely an improvement on the first half, so if the other episodes continue in that vein, maybe the good will outweigh the bad. We’ll see.

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