NBC has been sitting on Emerald City for so long it seemed as though the project would never come to fruition. The initial 10-episode season received a greenlight in 2014, but the dark update of L. Frank Baum’s books nearly ended up being tossed aside following creative differences between the network and producers who were attached at the time. A new team was brought on a year later, this time with director Tarsem Singh attached and determined to bring his particular vision to the series in each and every episode (not unlike how Cary Fukunaga or Sam Esmail directed entire seasons of True Detective or Mr. Robot season 2). With that the peacock network was set to bring its decidedly not-for-kids retelling of The Wizard of Oz to television.
This grownup reimaging hews closer to Baum’s books – less a tale destined to be told through musical numbers and consumed by children, and more a political allegory – repositioning several familiar characters and their motivations into something more akin to what modern television audiences have come to expect from certain high-concept series. As such, given its large cast of characters, gorgeous fantasy settings, and seemingly complex commentary, it’s no surprise that NBC has welcomed comparisons to HBO’s Game of Thrones. But where that adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels benefits from the source material’s intricate storytelling methods, well-developed characters, and its understanding of the role violence and political intrigue play in executing its narrative, Emerald City is hobbled by the ponderousness that sets it apart from the various adaptations that have come before. The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz, Return to Oz, Wicked – they all have created a distinct impression, one that proves to be indelible, despite this update’s concerted efforts to make viewers think otherwise.
Initially, though, that’s part of the fun of watching Emerald City: comparing and contrasting the elements and characters that everyone is well aware of with the update’s sometimes radical, sometimes daffy changes. Here, Dorothy isn’t a rosy-cheeked fish out of water; she’s a nurse played by Adria Arjona (True Detective season 2), driven to confront the birth mother who abandoned her when the familiar Kansas tornado whisks her off to the magical land of Oz. Other changes are immediately underlined as well; the two-hour premiere works swiftly to set up Dorothy’s arrival in a strange land, balancing that with the inevitable alterations in character and tone that will come to define the series moving forward. Here, Toto isn’t a cute little lapdog, but half a K-9 unit that’s used to add some unexpected action to the mystery of Dorothy’s mother, her past, and the strange marking on her hand that presumably signifies her as “the one.”
The demonstration of dissimilarities continues apace throughout the first hour, ‘The Beast Forever’, which introduces darker proxies for the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and Scarecrow – making at least two of the three into sexy, wayward antiheroes who are accustomed to violence and frequently covered in blood. Of the three, it’s the Scarecrow – known here as Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) – who gets the most screen time. Dorothy discovers a crucified Lucas as she travels the yellow brick road (instead of actual yellow bricks, the road is made of stones with a generous dusting of poppy pollen – that’s right, the yellow brick road will get you high) and though he has no recollection of who he is or what he did to wind up being punished, Lucas soon accompanies Dorothy on her quest to find the Wizard of Oz.
Here, Vincent D’Onofrio, reunited with Singh, who directed him in the similarly visually striking and yet hollow 2000 Jennifer Lopez thriller, The Cell, plays the Wizard. As is often the case with D’Onofrio, he brings a multitude of physical and vocal embellishments to the role, transforming the character into a paranoid demagogue with the tenor of an agitated used-car salesman. It’s a good performance, and arguably a better one that the show earns, considering how little intrigue is generated in the first two hours, as Emerald City works to lay out the Wizard’s efforts to rid Oz of magic, years after a near-cataclysmic event from which the first hour gets its title.
To that end, the choice by NBC to premiere the first two episodes of the series at once was wise. Seeing as how Emerald City wants to be a 10-hour movie, instead of a serialized television program, offering viewers more to go on becomes a necessity, rather than a treat. When those initial two hours are over, though, the question remains: What will drive viewers to want to watch more, aside from simply seeing the series reach its conclusion? Undoubtedly, there will be fans excited by the dramatic and violent update to a story known primarily through a near-ubiquitous film that’s over 75 years old. There will likely also be those who show up and are willing to stay for the lush visuals Singh typically brings to whatever project he’s working on. All that is fine, but even combined, those elements don’t necessarily make for a compelling or even fun television series.
Even still, what Emerald City lacks in narrative drive and characters capable of sustaining interest, it more than makes up for in its willingness to go all-in on its fantasy elements with nary a wink at the audience. That seriousness may serve the series well with certain fans, but for those hope for a little levity to even things out, they’ll have to look elsewhere. Singh is seemingly as adamant about maintaining a singular, ponderous tone throughout the series as he is in maintaining a directorial vision. That’s unfortunate, as Dorothy’s early scenes with Lucas, and later, the witch who has imprisoned a young boy (who isn’t), might have made the series as a whole more promising, had they brought something other than utter seriousness to the table. Instead, Emerald City reaches for a kind of substance it seems unlikely to ever reach.
Emerald City continues next Friday with ‘Mistress – New – Mistress’ @9pm on NBC.