My take on…Emerald City

My take on…Emerald City

“Your past does not define you. Your mother does not define you. All that matters is who you wish to be…and how hard you’re willing to fight for it.”
The Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) played by Vincent D’Onofrio
Mistress – New Mistress episode of Emerald City
teleplay by Justin Doble and David Schulner
based on the books by L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum would have turned the Wizard of Oz books into a television series.

He was personally involved in taking them onto the silent silver screen, the stage, and in tie-in books.

It’s reasonable to assume that in today’s market, it would have been cutting edge. Baum had “dancing girls”, and ethnic humor.

The books brought in contemporary events, and commented on them (even if one ignores a theory that the first book had to do with the gold standard).

As a big Oz fan, I can take that into account in watching the new adaptation on NBC:

Emerald City

If the series feels a bit “Game of Thrones”…well, it would have. Baum would have looked at what was successful (and loved and critically lauded)…although he would also have walked his own path.

Given all that, how faithful is Emerald City? How do I like it?

I am always careful about spoilers, so I will warn you ahead of time that I will reveal some small details in this post, while avoiding major plot points. If you’d like to be surprised by every allusion, I’d watch the first four episodes before reading this (you may find the first two episodes bundled together). Outside of that, you should be good.


I’m quite pleased to see that the people writing Emerald City are clearly very familiar with the “Famous 14”, the first main 14 books written by L. Frank Baum. There are many familiar names and locations, even if the characters (both of people and places) aren’t the same.

It’s important to be clear that it is the books, and not the 1939 movie with Judy Garland, that form the basis. It’s also not just the first book, the one most people know (and which is one of my least favorite of the series).

That said, there is one startling reference to the 1939 movie which I think is a mistake (and for the reason that it is too meta, too much of a distraction for me). The Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio, adding another geek-friendly credit to the resume, following playing Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk on Daredevil…and of course, Edgar in the original Men in Black) reveals his true name to be “Frank Morgan”. That’s the name of the actor who played the Wizard in the MGM musical…it’s not from the books (where the Wizard’s name was Oscar Diggs…with a lot more in-between).

The names in Emerald City otherwise mostly come from the books: Ojo, Mombi, Ev (another “land” in the Oz books), Tip, and so on. I don’t think we needed that fourth-wall break here.

The universe rules in Emerald City are more akin to rules in the first book than in the latter ones…which does make sense, based on the chronology. People (and animals) in Oz can die, and do…frequently and sometimes violently, in the TV series. In the first book, there are over 100 deaths delineated.

Later in the book series, the rules change and no one dies (although it’s never quite clear if visitors to Oz, such as Dorothy, can die in Oz…not just the readers, but the characters don’t know, and the latter speculate about it). People can be destroyed and feel pain, but can’t be killed. There is a reason for that…

Will that happen in the TV series?

Seems unlikely. Emerald City is what I call “a real Bleak Show” (as opposed to a “Freak Show”). That is certainly a popular tone now: “the world is bad and people are worse” (see, for example, Zack Snyder’s version of DC). It’s not at all new: stories like that go back a very long time. It’s just not my preference, and not my world view, but clearly, it can be resonant. Just about everybody in Emerald City does…at least questionable things, including Dorothy. In the original books, they weren’t all sweetness and light: characters often argued with each other, although after the significant shift happens, most people have the goal of getting along (they just aren’t always perfect at it). That’s one of the things that sets the original Oz books apart from many other putative children’s books.

This series is likely to revel in violence and sex (although not shown explicitly…while sex is certainly implied and discussed, this is still a network show. Violence is shown), so I think deathlessness is an unlikely choice.

Overall, the acting is good, the writing is good, and the direction seems good. I like the art direction and some of the Easter Eggs (with the exception of the reference to the 1939 movie). In particular, I thought having “Cassidy” show up on a poster for a lottery (which, interestingly, uses dollar signs for amounts…but that could be the Wizard’s doing) was a cute reference to Executive Producer Shaun Cassidy.

One change I might have made is that I find the score a bit intrusive…it’s almost always there telling us how to feel, like a laugh track in a 1960s sitcom. That’s not to say that the music is bad or jarring, it’s not (I like the themes)…it’s just that I don’t need it there as much.

So, Oz with reference to drones, crop circles, opium, physical therapy, transgender bathroom use, and a cellphone (although the last one isn’t new: The Wizard of Oz invented the cellphone)? For me, that works. Would I still like to see a series that was tonally more like the later Oz books? Sure, and I think we will. For me, one of the signifiers of great art is that it can be adapted in many different ways and still survive…they become more than plots, and characters, and settings. As with Shakespeare and West Side Story and Forbidden Planet, Oz is greater than any given adaptation, and enhanced by divergent visions.

That’s what I think…feel free to tell me and my readers what you think (or to ask questions about how Emerald City relates to the Famous 14…I’ll mask spoilers if necessary) by commenting on this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

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