Hit or Sh**: NBC’s EMERALD CITY
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s a gritty reboot! From the needlessly melodramatic BATMAN VS SUPERMAN to the upcoming (very real) live-action DUMBO remake helmed by Tim Burton and written by the same Dorito-tinged fingers who brought you TRANSFORMERS (again, this is extremely real), nothing spells big bucks like something audiences loved as kids adapted to suit their cynical adult sensibilities. NBC throws its hat into the ring with EMERALD CITY — a modern, dark take on THE WIZARD OF OZ.
We open in Kansas. Dorothy — played by Puerto Rican actress Adria Arjona — leaves her kindly adoptive parents to search for her birth mother who abandoned her on their doorstep Harry Potter style. She finds her bleeding out (???) as the fateful “twister” descends, then appeals to a nearby police officer for help, who turns his gun on her…because, racism, I suppose? But it’s too late for Officer Stereotype, because the twister touches ground just as Dorothy takes shelter in an empty police car with a confused police dog in the backseat. The twister sucks her up, and poof — we’re in Oz.
Dorothy’s errant police car squishes the “Stern and Merciful” Witch of the East and Dorothy is taken into custody by the “munchkins” — seen in this iteration as a harsh tribe of Oz natives called the Munja’kin.
No, I’m not shitting you, and yes, this is where things get awesome.
Basically, when you hear “over the rainbow,” think “over the wall”
Since only a witch can kill a witch, the Munja’kin waterboard Dorothy for information before eventually voting to exile her — but not before dropping my favorite line of dialogue from this pilot. Dorothy’s Munja’kin companion points out the police dog and says “Toto.” Dorothy corrects him, telling him that the dog doesn’t have a name. He clarifies: “‘Toto’ is ‘dog’ in our language.”
Oh, but it gets better.
He guides her to the road that will bring her to the Emerald City, tinged yellow by poppy pollen. Poppies, you may recall, are where opium comes from, so Dorothy can only walk along the Yellow Brick Road for a short of time before she literally gets so high she passes out.
Then she finds the “scarecrow” hanging from a cross:
This is one hundred percent real
He’s got no memory of his past to the point where Dorothy literally has to name him. (But y’know, he can still speak perfect English.) He joins her on her journey to meet the wizard in order to hopefully get his memory back. Get it? Because he has no BRAIN??? Also, he immediately wants to fuck Dorothy and she seems kind of down.
So she pulls him down from the cross and they get high on the Opium Road for a little bit. Then for some reason the Witch of the East (who you may recall as being squished 20 minutes ago) shows up very alive…somehow. Oh, also, she looks like this:
LEAKED: BOB THE DRAG QUEEN’S S9 CROWNING LOOK
She also wants to know what Dorothy’s deal is, so she puts a spell on Dorothy and Lucas that mentally sends them to a writhing mud prison known as the “Prison of the Abject.” She finds Dorothy’s gun (which I guess was in the pocket of the police jacket she found in the car?) and demands to know what it does. Dorothy tells her she’s “pointing it the wrong way” and tricks the witch into shooting herself in the fucking face.
I am now going to do everything I can to stop myself from dumping more plot on you, my dear reader, because there is so much more and it’s all completely bananas. Just to whet your appetite, future highlights include the “Wizard” of Oz knocking up a nun, magic barf, spontaneous gender bending, steampunk flying monkeys, and constant references to an evil force known as “The Beast Forever.”
Before I launch into actual criticism, let me clarify something: EMERALD CITY is not “good” in the traditional sense, but I’ll be sent to the Prison of the Abject before I say that this isn’t the most fun I’ve had watching a pilot in a long time. The two-part pilot runs for a whopping 90 minutes and I was rapt the entire time. Compare this to the million CBS procedurals and ho-hum FOX comedies that can barely hold a viewer’s attention for half an hour. So, you have to give this thing a little credit.
Remember this? Me neither.
Naturally, a good chunk of this 90 minutes was spent laughing at the show rather than with it, but I found myself sucked into the world of story in a weird way. I had a lot of fun theorizing how all of the different characters and plot devices from the source material would manifest in this new universe. What if the “Cowardly Lion” is a crazy feral madman who lives in the woods and eats people? What if the “Tinman” is a “heartless” serial killer who must learn empathy? What if Glinda the “good” witch is like some kind of stuffy high priestess while the “Wicked Witch of the West” is a Queen of Hookers? (That last one is real by the way. Sorry, couldn’t resist!) Again — this is NOT traditional good television — but EMERALD CITY did something few network shows can do by sparking the viewer’s imagination.
I’d also be lying if I said that the production design didn’t genuinely blow me away at times. They billed this as THE WIZARD OF OZ meets GAME OF THRONES and…they’re right! That’s literally what this is. Of course NBC isn’t going to pull off HBO levels of production value, but with EMERALD CITY they got really, really close. The costumes, props, and sets are all on-point. Most of the special effects hold up really well. Hell, even the performances aren’t bad for how hokey the concepts are! I found myself scratching my head at how NBC managed to pull together this much of a budget for a network TV show.
EMERALD CITY’s genuine weaknesses stem from its endeavor to put GAME OF THRONES on network TV. This could prove fatal for the same reason THE MICK failed — some things just aren’t fit for the restrictive network environment. EMERALD CITY sets up some THRONES-y political intrigue in the form of a conflict between the Wizard who has outlawed magic and the powerful Witches who are dying out and want to preserve their way of life. However, it will never be able to get away with the gratuitous sex and violence THRONES built itself on. Though EMERALD CITY does get really close. (At one point, Lucas smashes an old woman’s head in repeatedly with a vase.)
Can you do really GAME OF THRONES without Oberyn Head Squish?
The real question is this: can EMERALD CITY pull off the intrigue and world building of GAME OF THRONES enough to go on without leaning on sex and violence? Is its story that strong? The pilot is certainly fun to watch, but will the appeal hold up over one season — let alone multiple seasons?
I can’t quite give EMERALD CITY a “Hit” rating, but I will say I am completely on board for episode two and I am extremely hopeful that the show can embrace its wacky tone and build on its mythos and character relationships enough to keep the ball rolling. Fingers crossed for Cannibal Cowardly Lion.
Verdict: Sh** Probation
EMERALD CITY airs on NBC on Fridays