Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
If you’re not one for the resurgence of classic fairy tales translated into hard-edged, dark adventure stories (Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman), then you’ll likely have a difficult time connecting with NBC’s wondrously visualized but narratively slight re-do of The Wizard of Oz. Dubbed Emerald City, the new show has all the trappings of the hero’s journey – a reluctant heroine, an animal companion, a potential love interest, and about three too many villains – but it does nothing interesting with L. Frank Baum’s decidedly classic storytelling other than make it slightly more “adult.”
A twist on such a wholesome, homegrown American myth is ripe with potential, but Emerald City‘s idea of an origin story is one filled with cable-protected sex scenes for the Witch of the West (Ana Ularu, one of Emerald City‘s gleefully evil high points), the origin of Toto’s name, and what exactly those yellow bricks are made of (if you ever cared). The show’s central problem is that it consistently feels like fan fiction – like the worst story arcs of Once Upon A Time – clawing for a reason to exist without ever actually finding one.
It all starts Harry Potter-style, with a destiny-marked Dorothy Gale getting dropped off by a mysterious woman in the middle of the Kansas farmlands. She’s rushing, afraid of pursuers, and by the time Dorothy becomes a young woman twenty years later (played with appreciable charm by Adria Arjona), the woman is known only to her daughter as a nearby vagrant who abandoned her decades ago with no apparent yearning to reconnect. The snappy opening helps throw viewers into Oz with haste, but it also sets the series off on a wobbly foundation. Who is Dorothy beyond her mommy issues? How did she find out about her mother? Why is she suddenly so interested to speak to her now?
These aren’t so much satisfying mysteries as troublesome plot holes that make it hard to engage with the show from the outset. Thankfully, the cast just keeps getting stacked. After Dorothy lands in Oz and crushes the Witch of the East (Florence Kasumba) with a cop car, she stumbles upon a village in a place called the Tribal Freelands that looks awfully like a yet-to-be-discovered nation from The 100. On the opposite side of Oz, we meet the Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) and learn of the political struggles he’s faced in a land where he’s banned magic and witchcraft from spreading by outlawing their practices. Eventually, Glinda (Joely Richardson) appears in the capitol of Emerald City with her own agenda and, of course, all of them want Dorothy’s head on a spike because of some mumbo-jumbo prophecy dealing with “The Beast Forever” and the world’s destruction.
On the opposite side of Oz, we meet the Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) and learn of the political struggles he’s faced in a land where he’s banned magic and witchcraft from spreading by outlawing their practices. Eventually, Glinda (Joely Richardson) appears in the capitol of Emerald City with her own agenda and, of course, all of them want Dorothy’s head on a spike because of some mumbo-jumbo prophecy dealing with “The Beast Forever” and the world’s destruction.
Arjona embodies the somewhat boring role of Dorothy with an endearing grit, managing to turn a character that’s always just a flowing checklist of ideas and vaguely modern, pro-feminism notions into someone a bit more complex as time goes on. She’s also got good chemistry with Emerald City‘s version of The Scarecrow, Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who feels like another mirage from Once Upon A Time‘s magic mirror: like Hook, he’s a handsome redo of a classic character, has a central flaw, and is immediately drawn to the heroine. His problem is amnesia, unfortunately, so although he and Arjona have some sparkle, it’s hard to generate much investment in his own arc. Yeah, you guessed it – he wants the Wizard to fix his brain.
Eventually, the rest of the expected characters show up, and Emerald City even has occasionally cool moments of this-is-how-it-really-went-down retconning, like when it turns Baum’s flying monkeys into drone automatons who spy on the denizens of the city for the Wizard. One particularly neat idea centers around the technology Dorothy accidentally introduces into Oz, and the positive – and mostly negative – reactions it brings for the people living in a world with magic. It’s Emerald City‘s first true tangible brick of clever world-building, but it’s still not enough to prop up the rest of the story’s busy work.
Where the show truly shines is in the direction and visuals of pilot director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Mirror Mirror). The Oz of Emerald City is a few steps below the Burton-esque mess of Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful, and more on the level of Syfy’s Tin Man, with a considerably higher budget. There’s a weight and language to the world – from a creepy, byzantine underground prison to the gleaming skyscrapers of the titular city, buffeted by giant statues akin to Game of Thrones‘ Titan of Braavos – and they’re sometimes reason enough to stick around with Emerald City. The script hits snags and drags (particularly very early on in the second part of the two-episode premiere), but then Singh finds beauty and eeriness in the mundane, like the flowing red swathes of the Witch of the East’s opulent red dress.
Is that enough to sustain a 10-episode season (and beyond)? Short answer – no. The long answer is more generous. The rote hero’s journey and overstuffed political turmoil make it easy to tune out Emerald City far too often, but it at least shows the promise of being something more than an initial, terrible elevator pitch. The other major issue is that it not only exists in a world that has an overabundance of edgy fairy tale re-imaginings, but an overabundance of gritty fantasy as well. Emerald City is trying to be both, and also be better and different than the Once Upon A Times and Game of Thrones of the world, but despite some memorable visuals, it’s a master of none of its tricks.
A cyclone of nifty visuals, undercooked subplots and a solid cast, Emerald City simply never rises above its predictable Special Snowflake Destined For Greatness central plot.