The Scarecrow isn’t a scarecrow, but he is introduced in a crucifixion pose. The tin man isn’t The Tin Man, either, but he is the result of a horrifying, Frankenstein-style experiment. The lions aren’t cowardly—the citizens of Oz speak of them as if they’ll tear your throat out. The Munchkins have swapped out dandy fashions for tribal facepaint. The Wicked Witch Of The West runs a brothel. Welcome to Emerald City, the dark reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories that debuts on NBC after a nearly three-and-a-half-year trek down the yellow-brick development road.
So much of Emerald City reads like a paint-by-numbers grim-and-gritty update of The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz and its abundant sequels, it borders on self-parody. When we’re introduced to nurse Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona), she uses her bedside manner to distract an elderly patient while swiping her pills. Turns out the pills are for Aunt Em, but the meaning still lands with a thud: This is a Dorothy with attitude, she’s edgy, she’s in your face. You’ve heard the phrase “Let’s get busy?” Well this Dorothy is getting biz-ay with the McDreamy at the local clinic—consistently, thoroughly, and with no expectations of relationship baggage.
But she’s still a girl from Kansas with a heart of gold, so when she squashes a stranger with a squad car she commandeers—after being swept away in a tornado while attempting to reconnect with her birth mother, who’s bleeding out on the floor of a storm cellar—she still wants to set things right. And that’s what sets Dorothy on the quest to meet the wonderful Wizard Of Oz (Vincent D’Onofrio), who rules with an iron fist, flying-monkey-shaped drones, and an impossible-to-pin-down accent. The man who saved this curious place from a feared, frequently referenced (to the point of unintentional humor) threat known as The Beast Forever also brought to Oz rudimentary scientific knowhow, which he used to push magic to the fringes of society. Magic’s last guardians are the so-called “cardinal” witches: East (Florence Kasumba), who’s killed by Dorothy; substance-abusing madam West (Ana Ularu); and North (Joely Richardson), who goes by “Glinda” and prefers an icy authoritarian streak to the chirpy benevolence planted in the public imagination by Billie Burke and The Wizard Of Oz.
What was presented as the spine of the 1939 musical is but the first seed in a vast and wild poppy field that bloomed across 14 novels by Baum and scores of canonical works authored after his death. Its mythology is wild and wooly and well-trod in works outside the MGM film: In the mid-’80s alone, it provided fodder for a 52-part anime series and a bit of video-store nightmare fuel that’s since become a cult classic. If Emerald City is faithful to anything, it’s the unrestrained lunacy of Baum’s world, a place of munchkins and monkeys, yes, but also sea serpents made up of giant alphabet blocks and a quadrupedal beast made up of boxes.
What Emerald City doesn’t have use for is the whimsy exemplified by such Ozians. The series results from that undying urge to update classic fables for modern sensibilities, a trend that’s by no means fresh—though Emerald City’s methods are of a fairly recent vintage. Like Disney’s Alice In Wonderland updates, the Charlize Theron/Chris Hemsworth Snow White movies, or Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, it has a weaponizing effect on its heroine. With East dead, Dorothy inherits ruby gauntlets that grant her destructive powers, and her “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” moment arrives via a handgun that took the tornado ride with Dorothy, Toto, and the squad car.
Emerald City is also an example of a distinctly TV phenomenon: Call it George R.R. Martinizing, the process of converting existing legends and fantasy properties into Game Of Thrones-style war-and-sex epics. In theory, it’s supposed to bring a dose of gravity to a timeless tale. In practice, it’s very, very silly. It’s meant to subvert expectations, but it only ever meets them. As surely as West has picked up a few tips for making coin from Petyr Baelish, her druggy indulgences lead to a scene with a showy Pink Floyd soundtrack cue. In darkening the skies of Oz, Emerald City never thinks any harder than an apparel designer dreaming up sinister visions of the Cheshire Cat for mall punks and budding goths.
But Emerald City is a lot easier on the eye than the T-shirt wall down at the local Hot Topic. Every episode of the first season is directed by Tarsem Singh, who gives the series a uniformly lavish look—there’s thought, invention, and imagination even in its grimiest locations. (And, scoff-worthy as it is, even that eventual Dark Side Of The Moon sequence is a treat for the senses.) Emerald City reunites Singh with cinematographer Colin Watkinson—who shot the director’s most vivid feature, The Fall—and their vision of Oz is a stunning, globetrotting mishmash whose rocky moors, gilded palaces, and clattering workshops capture the scale of Baum’s sprawling fairyland better than most screen adaptations. Narrative logic and character depth elude Emerald City the same way they elude Singh’s big-screen efforts, but Glinda’s marble keep and the sumptuous scarlets and golds of Oz kingdom Ev almost make up for it. At the very least, the show is a visual triumph, its behind-the-scenes ranks populated by talent with plenty of relevant experience: Production designer David Warren helped craft the Oscar-winning steampunk aesthetic of Hugo, while hints of Jedi and Naboo sneak into the wardrobe courtesy of Trisha Biggar, whose costumes were one of the few saving graces of the Star Wars prequels.
It’s all too rich that an Oz production would be all style and no substance, a “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” situation if there ever was one. Emerald City’s attempts at modernization are cheap and empty, its plays at social commentary muddled and clumsy. The stuff with Dorothy’s “magic” gun is bad enough; its attempt to map contemporary issues of gender identity onto a crucial thread from The Marvelous Land Of Oz is what the kids might call “problematic.” Within the context of a familiar and favored saga, the show raises intriguing thematic conflicts—science versus magic, mortals meddling in the affairs of immortals, moral gray areas—but doesn’t bring them to satisfying conclusions. It talks such a big game that it’s genuinely surprising when the long-promised Beast Forever emerges. What’s not surprising is the ham-fisted way in which that emergence sets up a cliffhanger for a not-yet-confirmed second season.
And yet Emerald City is too singularly bonkers, too gorgeously assembled, to dismiss out of hand. One of its few moments of genuine magic suggests an optimal viewing experience: Pick your poison, mute the audio, throw Dark Side Of The Moon on, and see if the words of yesterday’s prog rockers match Singh’s vision better than the words of today’s TV writers.