The most sure sign that you will be a fan of NBC’s Emerald City is if you’re already a fan of its director, Tarsem Singh. Singh, who helmed all 10 episodes, leaves a distinct visual imprint on the series, which filmed on location all over the world in an attempt to minimize CGI. In that way, it’s very, very different from ABC stalwart Once Upon a Time, but the two share the common element of taking familiar fairy tales and putting a darker, more grown-up spin on them.
Emerald City is, of course, a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz stories, though it deepens that mythology and expands it in its own unique ways. Some of those updates and changes will sit well with fans of the books and musical adaptations and some will not, but the production (developed by Matthew Arnold) can’t be faulted for ambition, even if much of its patchwork story is ultimately too convoluted.
Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) is still a resident of Kansas, but she’s an adult who works at a hospital and is drumming up the courage to confront her birth mother, who lives nearby. On the night of the fateful twister, Dorothy finds her birth mother wounded and telling her she is in danger, but in another instant Dorothy is swept up in a police car (it’s best to not ask too many questions) and delivered to Oz, where she accidentally runs over a witch. Instead of being thanked for her service, however, in this version Dorothy is waterboarded by what look like vikings. Welcome to Emerald City.
In this more violent and grittier version, even Toto gets a makeover as a German Shepherd rather than a Cairn Terrier, and the Scarecrow (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is now a hot former fighter with amnesia who is Dorothy’s first friend in this hostile land. Emerald City takes its time in finding and revealing the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, and I won’t spoil those moments. But what it makes clear is that Dorothy’s quest to find the Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) in order to get home is not going to end up anywhere near the original. Ymmv on whether or not that’s a good thing.
Instead, we get a whole “chosen one” mythology that has an awkward introduction and a predictable trajectory, with the Wicked Witch of the West (Ana Ularu) and a passive-aggressive and manipulative Glinda (Joely Richardson) teaming up to work on bringing a young heir to power against the Wizard. Dorothy gets caught in the middle, as do a number of convoluted points regarding science vs magic, and the power of guns (there is a lot of violence, and this is a show that’s not afraid to kill kids — even if most resurrect in one way or another).
Essentially, think of this first season of Emerald City as a long origin story for Dorothy’s adventures in a distinctly steampunk-y Oz, which plays out like any good mythological quest or half-decent RPG. There are prophesies and beasts and magic and a lot of simmering romances (yes even for the Wizard), though accents are all over the place and its “one long movie” structure leaves it episodically a little week. The series also feels a little hamstrung by its place on broadcast. Though NBC, more than almost any other broadcast network, has tried pushing the boundaries of what audiences expect from the Big Four, it still hesitates. Because even its greatest critical and creative triumphs — Hannibal foremost among them — have not turned out to be hits.
For cable and premium networks, that’s not as much of an issue, since niche series for small audiences can still find a home without as much pressure. Emerald City will not have as much leeway, and it remains to be seen if viewers latch on to a visually sumptuous but narratively messy take on an old story. In the meantime, enjoy the insanity of the ride, if you can make any sense of it.
Rating: ★★★ — Points awarded for moxie
Emerald City premieres Friday, January 6th on NBC.