The Tarsem Odyssey
Ten Episode Season
Creators: Matthew Arnold and Joshua Friedman
Writers: Joshua Friedman, Matthew Arnold, Shaun Cassidy, Justin Doble, David Schulner, Nichole Beattie, Sheri Holman, Halley Gross, Naomi Hisako Iizuka, Leah Fong, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Tracy Bellomo, Josh Carlebach
Cast: Adria Arjona, Vincent D’Onofrio, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Ana Ularu, Mido Hamada, Gerran Howell, Jordan Loughran, Joely Richardson, Florence Kasumba, Stefanie Martini
Cinematography: Colin Watkinson
Music: Trevor Morris
Release: January 6, 2017
In 2012, Tarsem directed “Mirror Mirror,” a perky, family-friendly retelling of “Snow White,” and the movie was ignored in favor of the dark, sexy retelling of the same fairy tale called “Snow White & the Huntsman” Five years later, Tarsem directed a ten-episode dark retelling of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” but the series was largely ignored by an audience who now were wanting more bright, fun adventure stories. Yes, Tarsem had just missed the zeitgeist once again, with more fun movies like “Wonder Woman,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2” reigning at the box office.
To be fair, that was not the only reason that “Emerald City” was mostly ignored upon release. Coming out at the height of “Game of Thrones’” popularity, the show’s world-building, epic cast and fantasy tone was seen as a rip-off of the HBO hit. It didn’t help that the series had an infamously difficult development – with multiple creators taking a crack at its creation before being replaced mid-stream. Shaun Cassidy, who created the excellent one-season wonder “Invasion,” ultimately served as the showrunner over most of the scripts. Regardless, critics smelled blood in the water. NBC, which was then defined by shows like “The Voice” and the “Chicago Fire” franchise, was not the right network for this ambitious epic – not knowing what to do with it, they dumped it as a midseason replacement late Friday nights.
All this is a shame, because “Emerald City” is a wonder to behold.
It’s imperfect, frustrating, even infuriating at times… but it’s also unlike anything I’ve ever seen before on television. When it’s good – and it often is – it’s marvelous. If you haven’t seen it, and I assume you have not, you really should make time for its ten-episode first and only season.
The story involves a Latinx woman who is dropped into a magical dreamscape where she must face off against the land’s villainous monster, played by Vincent D’Onofrio…
Holy shit, guys, “Emerald City” is Tarsem remaking “The Cell”!
Okay, not quite, but it does feel like a major course correction for the director, getting him back in touch with the things that made him a distinctive voice to begin with. This is heartening after the awful, abortive “Self/less.” Here Tarsem reunited with Colin Watkinson, who previously lensed his “The Fall” and “Immortals.” Also back from “Immortals” is composer Trevor Morris, and I’ve already mentioned him casting D’Onofrio again. More than that, it’s him getting back to the themes that were featured in his best movies – ones like creating your own story, broken men angling for power and more.
The series very vaguely follows the Baum narrative. Dorothy (Adria Arjona) is now an adult nurse plucked from Kansas in the direct aftermath of a mysterious, violent crime and dropped into Oz. Instead of Munchkins, we get a tribe of natives who begin torturing her. The Yellow Brick Road is yellow because it’s lined with opium. The major witches are not known as wicked anymore, just by their directional designation. West (Ana Ularu) is an opium addict who owns a brothel. Glinda (Joely Richardson) owns a nunnery up North. The Scarecrow (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a sexy stranger found crucified and covered in tar & straw. He doesn’t remember who he is, but sure is good at murdering people. Characters from subsequent Oz books also figure prominently here, most notably Tip (Jordan Loughran), who is secretly Queen Ozma, but has been magically turned into a boy for over a decade by her captor Mombi. Langwidere (Stefanie Martini) hides her face from everyone under a series of elaborate masks (Tarsem’s specialty) as she plots against the Wizard.
Speaking of the Wizard (D’Onofrio), he is the most fascinating of villains here. Dropped into Oz from our world, his real name is Frank Morgan (yes, the name of the actor who played the Wizard in the iconic 1939 MGM musical). Using fear and intimidation, he has removed magic from the society and suppressed each of the powerful women who helped to run Oz before his arrival. He is not an extraordinary individual, and everyone is constantly plotting against him, but he has a real gift at manipulating any situation to his favor, so the cockroach keeps surviving. D’Onofrio has a field day playing the pathetic bastard, and is perfectly cast.
The rest of the ensemble is a mixed bag, partly because some of the casting choices were weak and partly because some of the characters are caught in wheel-spinning storylines that ultimately lead somewhere, but not for eight episodes. The Dorothy character is an unfortunate cipher, saddled with being wide-eyed at everything around her and a bland “find my mommy!” storyline while wandering around for most of the season. Without much to toy with, Arjona decides to play the role with “token pluck,” which is whatever.
Much better served are Ularu as West and Loughran as Tip. Ularu all but takes over as heroine of the series as it progresses, with a three-dimensional character fueling a tremendous performance. Loughran also does quite well with the season-long arc of feeling like a boy trapped in the body of a woman (or is it the inverse?), and when the two finally team up around the two-third mark, their scenes all but explode with chemistry.
Over on the other end of the spectrum is poor, poor Gerran Howell as Jack, the series’ Tin Man, who is just the worst. I have no idea if Howell is a good actor or not – the series only gives him the opportunity to either be angry or mopey – but I do know that Jack sucks the life out of any scenes or storylines he is in. The twist on the Tin Man is good in theory… after Tip pushes him off a ledge, he is brought back to life as a makeshift Terminator… but nothing he does is interesting. He always makes idiotic choices, and when he accidentally shoots his love interest in the head (yes, you read that right) during the penultimate episode, I began laughing at the character’s ineptitude.
Part of the problem stems from the writers pairing the characters off and, in most cases, half of the pair is a drag. The Scarecrow character, Lucas, is one of the better variations on the brooding, little-talking hero, and Jackson-Cohen (who now plays the world’s most muscular heroin addict on the wonderful “The Haunting of Hill House”) is an engaging presence. But for most of the season Lucas is saddled with the bland Dorothy. Before meeting up with Tip, West spends many scenes with the boringly evil Glinda. Tip is first with Jack (blahhh) before Jack pairs up with Langwidere, and he single-handedly sinks that character into a raving maniac within two episodes.
Reasons like this are why “Emerald City” isn’t the blockbuster success it could have been, but there are so many storytelling choices here which are just right. I love the throughline of guns and how it pays off in the finale. And there’s something so amazing about ending Lucas’ romance with Dorothy in a dark, violent, fucked-up place instead of the expected happy ending. After regaining his memory, Lucas is sent by Glinda to murder Dorothy in cold blood. He doesn’t succeed (thanks, police dog Toto!), and the full-circle imagery of the lovers’ final moments together made me weep. Dorothy strings Lucas up on a wooden cross, just like the crucifixion where she found him, and walks away, telling him sadly “It’s like I was never even here.”
All that said, the major reason you’ll never forget “Emerald City” once you watch it is Tarsem. Shot in three countries at hundreds of locations, the series looks astonishing. There’s no other word for it. The way he inverts and twists expected “Wizard of Oz” imagery is genius. There are moments and sights here that I will never forget. I feel like what I just wrote may come off as empty hype, but it’s not. There has never been another television show that looked like this one, and unless he directs another, I doubt there ever will be.
Not only did he shoot all over Europe, but I learned from the Making-Of Documentary on the DVD that he actually had roads built into mountainous areas of Spain to shoot areas that had never been captured on film before. And it was worth it – the landscapes are breathtaking. But not just the mountains… there are miles of abandoned beaches. A river with a low, narrow bridge navigating its way over the water. The cities feature buildings with the distinct work of Antoni Gaudi. Like “The Fall,” you walk away from “Emerald City” feeling like you’ve seen something transformative… locations you’ll never forget.
It’s also so refreshing to see so much of this fantastical world rendered practically (again, shades of “The Fall” there). The team of visual effects technicians have gone out of their way to enhance existing worlds with their 1s and 0s, not conjure them from scratch. Sure, there are exceptions – a neighboring Steampunk world is very much a CG creation, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. It’s worth mentioning that the CGI is beautifully placed into the worlds – those giant Goliath creatures that tower hundreds of feet over Oz and other locations look as good as anything currently in cinemas. A sequence of three women committing magical suicide by hanging themselves from the creatures is a perfect matching of the CGI creation and the practical effect of the stuntwomen falling… and there are numerous examples of that in nearly every episode.
My favorite visual in the entire series was saved for the finale, though, when millions of locusts descend on the army of Oz like a gigantic wave. Using magic, Dorothy freezes the creatures and creates a cylindrical haven for herself – an eye in the middle of the hurricane, where she has a conversation with Glinda… the frozen insects surrounding them, their wings moving ever-so-slightly. I have never seen anything like that in film and doubt I will again, and it took my breath away. The entire series is worth the investment for that one moment – that’s how awesome it is.
Even the most dismissive reviews (and there were plenty of them) lavished praise on Tarsem’s visuals, and his work throughout the entire series matches his best work in “The Fall.” He made the decision to direct all ten episodes – something more common now (“Better Things,” “The Haunting of Hill House,” “True Detective”) but groundbreaking two years ago – and you can feel his fingerprints everywhere.
The only visual aspect I could have asked for more was the costumes. It’s tragic that Tarsem’s muse Eiko Ishioka did not live to provide work for this series – I can only dream how amazing they could have been. Ishioka’s replacement, Trisha Bigger, is no slouch… she designed the costumes for the “Star Wars” prequels after all… and does provide a few great gowns. My favorite is East’s costume, with brilliant reds and trains that flow yards and yards behind her. But for the most part, that’s what they are – gowns. Despite the beauty and intricacies, they are clothes, not works of art.
The series ends on a bunch of cliffhangers, but none so drastic that you’ll scream to the heavens and hate that you invested your time… the first season tells the entire story of the Wizard’s reign and undoing. Though it at first seems anticlimactic, it is ultimately fitting that he’s shot to death unexpectedly by a minor secondary character… the bastard didn’t deserve better.
Though “Emerald City” was barely seen when it came out (ratings never hit five million viewers and were more often closer to two million), it has aged much better than many other, more critically lauded series from the beginning of our current Golden Age of Television. I’m not even sure what is even defined as a cult hit anymore in our era of streaming, where everything but the biggest hits are considered niche, but “Emerald City” deserves being rediscovered in the same way “Firefly” or “Pushing Daisies” was after their initial airings. I imagine people happening upon it while browsing streaming sites, being blown away and wondering how the hell they missed it when it first came out.
“Emerald City” serves as a creative reset for Tarsem’s career and shows that the guy still has the capability of providing amazing work. He hasn’t directed anything since the show ended in early 2017, and I have no idea what (if anything) he is currently developing. Despite a few low points, I have enjoyed this Odyssey exploring his film and television work, and ending it now is bittersweet, because “Emerald City” has left me hungry for more. Maybe his next project will finally hit the zeitgeist at the right time and he’ll get the respect and recognition he deserves.
One can hope.