Jan 7, 2017

Channel Surfing: Emerald City - "The Beast Forever"/"Prison of the Abject"

Scene from Emerald City
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
It is a story that most people know, regardless of how little you care about Classic Hollywood cinema. The Wizard of Oz, adapted from the L. Frank Baum novel of the same name, is one of the most widely recognized and revered films that the medium has ever produced. The song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is just as recognizable with many of its plot elements still being referenced in pop culture. With many remakes and even a prequel called Oz: The Great and Powerful to the franchise's credit, the wonderful world of Oz is one that people keep wanting to visit, but few have come close to matching the magic of the 1939 film - even with arguably better and more readily available special effects.
Why could this be? It could be that fantasy films are generally less recognized than other genres in subsequent years. However, it could just be that the 1939 version is one that feels grounded in imagery so iconic and looming that it ranks alongside Star Wars in an impossible debate. You cannot reinvent it without a critical backlash. It's nigh impossible. NBC has attempted to do just that with a serialized reimagining of the Baum story with Emerald City, which owes plenty of credit to the show's creator, Tarsem Singh. The filmmaker is best known for making some of the most visually striking and visceral films of the past decade, including The Cell, The Fall, Immortals, and the Cinderella remake Mirror Mirror. Speaking as he's also signed on as director for every episode, this show looks to be a singular vision of which is usually reduced to HBO and Showtime programming. It should make for an interesting venture.
Of course, Emerald City is hard to separate from the countless classic stories that have been remade into TV series in recent years. There's the major players like Once Upon a Time, Grimm, and Sleepy Hollow. There's also countless other "more recent" stories that have been adapted, including Hannibal, Lethal Weapon, and The Exorcist. The remake culture is in so much of a full swing that one cannot even watch a movie trailer without hearing a slowed down cover of an iconic pop song. It's impossible to find integrity amid this recent trend, even with the potential to make an auteur TV series that stretches beyond typical conventions. To say the least, the first two episodes of Emerald City aren't lacking definition. They're just lacking demographic clarity.
Who is this show for? Purists will have plenty to question before the first episode is through - and not just because it looks "weird." Beyond the tornado whisking Dorothy (Adria Arjona) away, it's easy to begin nitpicking. The flying house is replaced with a car. The Munchkins are replaced with a pretty tall tribal community that looks to have inhabited the set of The Revenant. Even the Tin Man is nothing more than a greased up guy strapped to a crucifix. Add in that Emerald City is, ahem, not colored emerald; and you'll likely wonder what this show is trying to do in playing such a risky trust game. It's one thing to alter iconography, but the dark subject matter (someone does shoot themselves in the head) makes this feel like it exists for fans of revisionist fantasy, and only the type who like gaudy costumes and the nature version of steampunk. The show itself is fine, but there's very little besides names that connect Emerald City to Baum lore, and that may be a problem.
In the show's defense, Singh is a man whose vision is often singular in isolating ways. This is no different and reflects the promise of him creating a 10 hour movie that is deranged and lively, giving dark souls a version of The Wizard of Oz that isn't so fruity. The only real issue is that after two episodes, there's not too much compelling to go off of if you're not lured in by Singh's visual tapestry. None of the characters are necessarily interesting with few of the plot developments actually being vibrant attention-getting set pieces. It's fine, but it lacks anything beyond self-serious exposition. It could just be that this world is too new for audiences, but even then there's not much of a hook if one subtracted the Baum connection.
Emerald City does play like one of those shows that will have a life on Netflix after people get bored of the other supernatural reboots. In fact, it seems weird that it wasn't on there to begin with. In some respects, NBC deserves credit for making a bold move to work with a divisive auteur that manages to take something vanilla and make it stand out in a sea of vanilla swirls. The show will find its audience, but it probably won't keep most other people around. It's weird, and that's fine. Is it good? Now that we're 20% of the way through, it's hard to tell for sure.

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