Emerald City is The Wizard of Oz for people who thought the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz would have been better if there were no songs and almost no humor, and the cinematography favored emergency-room-nurse blue and ashcan grey, and the Scarecrow (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) was turned into a standard-issue burned-out knight with killer abs who’s found lashed to a cross with barbed wire, and Dorothy carried a handgun into Oz and it blew someone’s brains out, and if the Wicked Witch of the West (Ana Ularu) were introduced climaxing on top of a faceless, oiled-up muscleman. And if there were a long scene of Dorothy Gale, now a twenty-something nurse played by Adria Arjona, being waterboarded by burly, fur-swaddled barbarians who’ve replaced the Munchkins. And a scene where three magic-possessed women leap from a great height and lynch themselves in midair. It’s a take on the Wonderful World of Oz where somebody explains to Dorothy that here “Toto” means dog.
Yes, I know, the 1939 take on L. Frank Baum’s world of magic isn’t sacrosanct. Literary properties get adapted and reinterpreted in different ways, and part of the fun of being an engaged viewer lies in seeing what different sensibilities can do with the same or similar material. There have been other intriguing takes on Baum, including a 1982 anime version, Walter Murch’s 1985 Return to Oz (itself rather grim; Dorothy has electroshock therapy to make her forget her adventures), and Wicked, a musical brief in defense of the Witch of the West. This modern fairytale should not be embalmed in our memories for fear of offending Judy Garland–MGM purists, never to be reimagined.
But it’s the last part of that last word, “imagined,” that’s the deal-breaker here. Every dollar NBC spent is plainly visible on your screen — and kudos to whoever decided to shoot key scenes in actual, physical locales in Hungary, Spain, and Croatia — and yet somehow imagination is in woefully short supply. The entire thing feels too canny, too much the result of a marketplace gamble, and that’s especially dispiriting in light of the fact that all ten episodes are directed by Tarsem Singh, an extravagant visual stylist whose work tends to have a music-video-fashion-show-nightmare vividness even when the story makes no sense and isn’t trying to.
It’s obvious that what NBC wants is its own answer to The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, with a splash of Star Wars–The Matrix–Harry Potter “chosen one” mythologizing (this Dorothy is a Moses-styled foundling with mysterious markings on her skin), and a sprinkling of Outlander’s “stranger in a strange land” austerity and sex appeal (Judy never looked at her Scarecrow the way this Dorothy looks at hers). Created by Matthew Arnold (NBC’s Siberia), the show is dire, serious, plot-heavy, epic in scope, and absolutely not for kids. So, it should come as no surprise that a kind of cut-rate George R.R. Martin vibe would predominate, even when the filmmakers are throwing in Easter egg–style references to Oz iconography, like the stained-glass rainbow hanging over the sink in Dorothy’s adoptive parents’ kitchen, or the gold chain-mail gloves that stand in for ruby slippers.
But it’s all so monotonous and suffocating that every time Emerald City summons a legitimately beautiful production design or costuming touch — such as the mosaic tile murals on walls; the flowing, blood-red gown worn by the Witch of the East (Florence Kasumba); or the steampunk-ish flying-monkey drones that record spy-cam images on sepia-tinted, hand-cranked film — they don’t pop, much less dazzle, as they should. The pseudo-“gypsy” accents and incantations, the war-drum-heavy score, the gigantic statues and palaces and twisters created by (seemingly) the same software programs that every Hollywood blockbuster uses these days, are all subtle or unsubtle variations on things you’ve seen before, and keep seeing over and over and over.
The mentality that gave us this NBC series is the same one that drained all the color out of Superman’s world in two recent blockbusters (and turned his capes and tights into “armor”) and that makes every other action and horror film in multiplexes look as if it has been bled with leeches. The language, too, is depressingly secondhand, particularly the Game of Thrones Mad Libs royal titles, intoned with all the enthusiasm of a substitute teacher calling roll: “Mistress of the Western Fields, Vessel of Truth and Solace.” “Maiden of Northern Lights, Mother of the Good and Pure.” (Though at least this is the inspiration for a decent joke: The Witch of the West complains that she spends half her life waiting to enter rooms.)
The cast is strong, and they do their damnedest to make every scene feel like something other than a deal memo being read aloud. But only Joely Richardson (as the Witch of the East) and Vincent D’Onofrio (as a science-minded Wizard with a nasal voice) succeed in creating characters that command your attention beyond their plot function. Here, too, though, weirdly counterproductive decisions blunt the performers’ charisma: At one point, Singh makes Richardson play an intense, quiet conversation with her face hidden behind a beaded veil (she finally parts it, seemingly because she’s just had enough) and D’Onofrio is fitted with a woolly hairpiece and beard that makes him look as if he’s co-splaying Hagrid at Comic-Con. (The latter choice is ultimately explained, but only after you’ve spent a long time wondering if the people who’ve made the show realize how bad it looks.)
How and where Emerald City went wrong is a subject for an industry reporter with time to kill — I’m sure everyone involved has a different version of what went down — but switching show-runners during production is often a sign that somebody higher up wasn’t pleased with where things were going and decided to “save” the project. It looks like that’s what happened here: David Schulner (Desperate Housewives) replacing Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). Singh starts to get his visionary mojo back near the end of episode three, which not coincidentally is where Emerald City starts seeming less interested in Martin-style literary world-building than in throwing spectacular set-pieces up onscreen and pushing things in a more David Lynchian direction. Things might very well improve after that point, and if I hear that they have, I’ll revisit the series. But right now the prospect of tilling the Gale family’s land is more enticing.