Monday, February 13, 2017

Because of the Wonderful Things He Does

Dorothy (Adria Arjona, center) and Toto arrive in Munchkinland
Everyone from the Atlantic to Rotten Tomatoes feels compelled to notice how NBC’s event series Emerald City feels like producers ran The Wizard of Oz through Game of Thrones like a coffee filter. The implication, not universal but widespread, holds that this is a bad development. But arguably, America probably needs such a twist today. Oz remains a primordial American myth, and in today’s pessimistic environment, a darker read may be what American audiences need.

It’s hard to imagine a more literal manifestation of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” than L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. With its literal road through the signposts of Dorothy’s transitions, it clearly signifies America—in its own figuration, an eternally youthful country—developing from the horse-drawn, primarily oral Nineteenth Century to the more solidly factual, petroleum-burning Twentieth. It remains a compelling story, because it’s a story about us. Emerald City reverses that trend.

It begins with an adult Dorothy (Adria Arjona) manifestly unhappy in small-town Kansas. Expository dialog and brief scenes reveal Dorothy, a nurse, has commitment-free sex with doctors inside her chain of command and steals medication from patients for her ailing adoptive parents. She’s also visibly brown, which, if you know anything about Kansas outside Douglas and Johnson Counties, makes her an unwanted but economically necessary outsider, somebody targeted for harassment in today’s divided red-state America.

Swept into Oz by a brutally realistic whirlwind that lacks Judy Garland’s semi-Freudian whimsy, she crash-lands in a fairyland that leaves her bloody, and, of course, kills the witch. She immediately encounters “Munchkins” who are neither diminutive nor cute. Literary critic Evan Schwartz writes that Baum invented the Munchkins to manifest his guilt over having advocated, as a young South Dakota newspaperman, the eradication of American Indians. These Munchkins represent America’s inherited sense of guilt.

The Wizard (Vincent D'Onofrio, center), surrounded by the witches of Oz,
in an advance promotional poster from NBC

One could make a list representing ways Baum’s world represents various transitions. The sentient apple trees as a fear of malevolent nature, our own or that of the outside world, which we must control to achieve maturity. The poppy field inducing people to fall asleep where they are, and avoid contacting the adult world. The city itself, where the lack of magic, and the ultimate disappointment of technology, ultimately thrown Dorothy onto her own devices.

This retelling reverses many such symbolic moments. The narcotic poppies don’t want to stop Dorothy’s adulthood, they want to drop her in a prison of existential malaise. The Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) remains impotent and powerless, almost a tragicomic figure when standing alone, but maintains the illusion of authority by being capricious, vengeful, and destructive. The Scarecrow (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) represents the one moment of Dorothy’s maturation, when she accepts responsibility for something larger than the moment.

Comparisons to Game of Thrones aren’t untoward. This version is both violent and sexually forthright, unafraid both to establish well-liked characters only to kill them, and to engage in titillation. By episode seven, Dorothy and the Scarecrow fall into bed, while episode five has young Tip, a rendition of Baum’s lesser-known character Ozma, in a Sapphic bathtub scene with another very young woman. For a network production, Emerald City isn’t afraid to skirt FCC boundaries.

Speaking of Ozma, this series’ reach is remarkably catholic. Though The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a primal American myth, it also became an unquestioned cash cow, and Baum ultimately published thirteen sequels, many written in haste, which contradicted one another. This series incorporates Ozma, Nick Chopper, Queen Ev, and other characters Baum distributed wildly. This results in a decentralized story, but it also reflects the multiple, divergent storylines necessary for any modern American myth.

The Scarecrow (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, left) tries to persuade Dorothy
that they should continue as a team

If Baum’s original Oz symbolized America’s transition from agrarianism to high technology, this Oz symbolizes America’s inability to agree upon whether reality even exists. Episode six reveals that Dorothy was born in this mythic land, not in “reality” as she knows it. D’Onofrio’s Wizard goes from confused, sympathetic uncle to vindictive fascist with, ahem, whirlwind speed. As in America dominated by MSNBC and Fox News, characters’ individual preconceptions shape their apprehended reality, not vice versa.

One prior attempt to update Oz also reflected its time. Syfy’s three-part Tin Man reset Baum’s characters in a similar morally ambiguous steampunk universe. But, released in the waning days of George W’s fervent nationalism, Tin Man showed Oz possessed by an evil spirit it must shake off. Emerald City shows Oz occupied… but by whom? Both the Wizard, and the Witches he controls, lie with casual impunity. Oz, like America, is dominated by confusion.

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