NBC’s new fantasy drama is no Wizard of Oz.
The common trend in network television in response to the “TV renaissance” has been an increasingly desperate bid to measure up against what’s available on cable. This takes the form of shows like Hannibal and American Crime, whose entire concepts are built around pushing the envelope concerning what’s allowed on network TV — almost as if to wave and say, “Broadcast networks can do gritty too!” Hannibal featured cannibalism, grotesque torture, and operatic sadism; American Crime teenage rape, drug use, and brutally honest story-telling.
Emerald City, NBC’s newest addition, is a clear example of this trend. A gritty reboot of the classic 1939 film, the story follows Dorothy after she’s transported from her quaint Kansas town and into a world of brutal witchcraft, cruelty, and sex. There’s a lot of court intrigue, servants announcing titles loftily upon introducing their leaders, and a menagerie of mysterious magical means for delivering pain…very similar to HBO’s Game of Thrones (though at least during Emerald City’s sex scenes, people keep most of their clothes on.) It’s cliché to say, but too fun not to – “Toto, we’re not in family territory anymore.”
From an artistic perspective, there’s nothing inherently wrong with remaking something with an edge, provided it’s advertised and rated properly, and delivered via an appropriate channel, which in this case would clearly be a cable network. Giving old favorites the “gritty reboot” treatment has been a trend in movies for a while now, like it or not. And one could easily point out that the networks themselves have even begun mining the R-rated movies of yesteryear (Lethal Weapon, Training Day) to add to their slates, so why not The Wizard of Oz? Who really cares if the show’s version of the Scarecrow is found hung on a cross by barbed wire, and later beats a woman nearly to death with a metal instrument right after stabbing her? I mean, why not? Stop complaining. What makes Emerald City so bad?
The gripe lies partly in what’s being adapted, but also in how it’s being distributed and advertised. The original movie has stood the test of time as a perennial family favorite, and most adaptations have tried to remain close to that spirit. In fact, if it weren’t for the family-friendly success of The Wizard of Oz, Emerald City would never have been made in the first place. Remaking a family favorite in such a gritty fashion, and to do so while attempting to cull the marketing bump any Wizard of Oz remake inevitably receives (which inevitably means appealing on some level to kids), is a shameless ploy to boost numbers on the back of an audience that won’t be getting what they’ve come to expect. Come for the family fun — stay for the soft-core Game of Thrones.
This plays into the larger issue with broadcast TV’s strategy in general, which seems to hold true across all four networks – they want so badly to be like cable, and they’re just not. Attempting to play cable’s game is a fool’s errand for them, considering that however far they can push the envelope, there is an envelope for them that just doesn’t exist for FX or USA in the same way. Broadcast TV has different limitations, and a very different audience, than the “edgy” cable networks. Time and again, the networks take swings with these shows that maybe would work on cable, but that can’t work as well on their broadcast TV. It’s a disservice to their bottom line, to the creators of their shows and, most of all, to their audience.
Emerald City airs Fridays at 9:00 p.m. ET on NBC.