'Emerald City': TV Review
This latest retelling of 'The Wizard of Oz' is weird, violent and oddly ambitious, but the NBC series may amount to less than the sum of its parts.
There are probably people in the world who don't like remakes, or the "reimagining" of classics. But are there really any people left in that camp when it comes to The Wizard of Oz, which has been a classic movie, a not very good modern movie, a play, a musical, a TV series and more? Friday night, L. Frank Baum's books return as, well, a kind of weirdly dystopian tale that seems like it wants to be on HBO but ends up on NBC — and that description makes it sound better than it really is.
Meaning, if someone wanted to make the bleakest Wizard of Oz ever — say a Cormac McCarthy version — where there is no happy ending and Dorothy just bleeds out somewhere in a Kansas alley as the credits roll, I would watch that. But NBC's Emerald City is going for something with more right angles than a musical but less heft and depth than an FX drama and runs into this odd middle ground where the silly merges with the violent, fumbling the tone on down the Yellow Brick Road (which here is made of opium).
Anyway, it's kind of a mess but your mileage may vary, especially since the first few hours are enough to keep you trying to figure out the mysterious direction Shaun Cassidy, David Shulner, Matthew Arnold and Josh Friedman — who developed the 10-hour series — are going in, led there by director Tarsem Singh (Mirror Mirror).
And at this point in the history of the Wizard of Oz, trying to figure out the latest reinterpretation is half the fun. This is a story that's been worked over pretty hard through the years. It seems the intent with this NBC version was to pluck Dorothy out of Kansas and plop her down in... Westeros? Yes, there's a half-baked Game of Thrones feel to Emerald City in parts, and then when you're adjusting to that there's a pinch of Willy Wonka that seems a bit out of place as well before it all shifts to corners where the writers seem to be in a battle to make it more off-kilter as they go: Let's have the Mistress of the Eastern Wood (Florence Kasumba) blow her brains out; the Wicked Witch of the West (Ana Ularu) be a brothel owner and addict; and Glinda of the North (Joely Richardson) appearing to think she's in Lord Of the Rings.
And then there's Dorothy (Adria Arjona), who seems to be in a network cop procedural. On the other hand there's a b-story about sexual identity which is kind of surprising and interesting and only slightly creepy.
Again, on some level Emerald City is just out there enough to keep you watching and maybe at this point in time and on network television there's a certain need to be a ragtag curiosity to keep people coming back each week (it premieres with two full episodes, which is a bit daring in itself these days).
It's hard to fault Emerald City for its ambition and creativity, but there's a surprising level of violence here that only barely gets undercut by moments of silliness (and it was hard to figure out early on if the Wizard, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, was supposed to be silly or sinister). Maybe the tonal shifts were necessary because so many fingers appear to be in this reimagined pie.
There are creative tweaks to all the familiar characters — some you'll see coming, some you'll be amused by, some you'll smile over and others you'll groan over — and if marching down the yellow poppy-pollen road of opium, through the Westeros hills and toward a 10-hour story that might pay off with some visual treats is the kind of TV journey you're up for, by all means head to Emerald City. If not, you've still got L. Frank Baum's books, Judy Garland's movie version and Wicked if you want, so your options are extensive.
Or you could just choose an unfamiliar story that's on TV — I hear there are hundreds of those out there.
Cast: Adria Arjona, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Ana Ularu, Vincent D'Onofrio, Joely Richardson, Jordan Loughran, Gerran Howell, Mido Hamada
Developed by: Matthew Arnold, Josh Friedman, David Schulner, Shaun Cassidy
Directed by: Tarsem Singh
Fridays, NBC, 9 p.m.