There have been a lot of takes on “The Wizard of Oz,” a lot of different points-of-view on the fantastical world originally created by the novels of L. Frank Baum in 1900. But NBC’s “Emerald City” is, to the best of my knowledge, the first one that transforms the flying monkeys of the classic 1939 musical adaptation into steampunk drones. They’re still recognizably flying monkeys, but to the residents of Oz, they’re just a random bit of technology, accepted as normal in a world that’s anything but.
There is something genuinely special about NBC’s “Emerald City,” premiering tonight — and not just because of its complicated journey to television, which included at least one total shutdown during the development phase before being reborn as a 10-episode series directed in its totality by Tarsem Singh, in a wide variety of exotic locations around the world.
Tarsem is a director who’s always shined bright for his ability to bring a unique visual look to the screen, but he’s also shown an interest in storytelling on a fantastical level. “Emerald City” might be best described as an adult fairy tale, and as with many fairy tales, it’s easy to be cynical towards it. But, as is also so often the case with tales told in this genre, if you can let yourself engage, you’re in for a treat.
“Emerald City” gets through “The Wizard of Oz’s” familiar opening beats relatively quickly: Young woman named Dororthy (Adria Arjona) and a dog named Toto get whisked off by a tornado to a new universe populated by all manner of odd folk. And the show is always fully engaged with its legacy, usually making it fairly easy to guess what parallels it’s creating to previous works. For example, based on his introduction it’s hard not to miss which character Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) represents from the original, though before now I’d never thought about how scarecrows are essentially being cruicified in the fields they guard.
That’s the sort of dark and modern edge brought to the series by the many executive producers involved with the show’s development since 2014, including Matthew Arnold, Josh Friedman, Shaun Cassidy and David Schulner (the latter two of whom are the ones still actively involved). The violence is no joke, either, and thanks to at least one of the witches, there’s no shortage of sex and drugs in the mix.
But while it’s easy to mock the concept of an “edgy” “Wizard of Oz,” it’s also important to remember just how delightfully weird and edgy the original books were themselves. Baum packed 14 novels with fantastical characters, political allegory and more feminism than you’d expect from a book that’s over one hundred years old — a legacy which the series honors.
While we won’t get into spoilers here, those familiar with the original books will be excited to learn that Tip (Jordan Loughran) plays a prominent role in the first season, and that the character’s story has been very much updated for 2017. And Schulner, in explaining why the show would be “100 percent less rape-y than ‘Game of Thrones,'” pointed to Baum’s mother’s background as a suffragette as part of why the books feature so many interesting female characters. The series’s witches, princesses, scientists and more drive the action in so many ways — even when Dorothy takes a back seat.
Over the course of the season, you end up wanting a little bit more from Dorothy as a character, even though Arjona is giving it her all, and brings a lot of spunk to the screen. (She also has some fantastic chemistry with Jackson-Cohen, making the relationship between their characters one of the show’s biggest emotional hooks.) Also, though the migrating accents of the cast don’t feel too problematic while we’re in Oz (it’s a magical kingdom, and we let “Game of Thrones” get away with an equal amount on this score), it’s hard to give Arjona a full pass on this. While the character’s roots are set as at least partially Latino — Dorothy even speaks Spanish in the first episode — a Kansas girl should probably sound a little more like she’s really from Kansas.
While Vincent D’Onofrio is reliably solid as the Wizard, the cast is full of standouts, especially in later episodes that we’re reluctant to spoil (except to say Gina McKee and Gina Bellman are always welcome on our screens). But right from the beginning, the show is basically stolen by the captivating Ana Ularu as the Wicked Witch of the West, reinvented here with a goth look and perhaps the best sense of humor in Oz. It’s odd to say someone is a believable witch, but there’s something a bit magical about her on screen, especially when she’s bouncing off Joely Richardson as Glinda. The dichotomy between their two approaches to witchcraft is not played for subtlety (“The only choice for a girl is nun or whore?” one character snaps at them at one point). But, then again, this isn’t a narrative that lends itself to subtlety.
The politics of a society split between a reliance on magic and a reliance on science fuel a major part of the drama, but while the subject matter doesn’t get the deepest treatment, that may be because “Emerald City” seems reluctant to pick a side in the battle. The witchcraft practiced by the witches and their followers is sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying. The way science theoretically “helps” certain characters isn’t much better. It’s a society out of balance, and while it doesn’t inspire much in the way of debate, the battles that ensue intrigue.
And all this takes place against some of the most cinematically stunning TV we’ve seen on a broadcast network since “Hannibal” sadly ended its run — it genuinely makes such a difference to see real locations on display as opposed to green-screening, and the visual treats this show offers cannot be overstated. Tarsem is a master of juxtaposing sharp beauty against bleak reality, and this is a project where that treatment truly shines in every episode.
The overall result is a first season that has its flaws, but features enough delightful weirdness to intrigue those willing to give it a chance. If we do not take every opportunity to celebrate the crazy that surfaces from unexpected sources, our media landscape will be bleak indeed. Greatness is fueled by our ability to allow insanity into the mix; that’s when chances are taken, when epic leaps are made. “Emerald City” is without a doubt an epic leap into the unknown. Sometimes, it soars.
“Emerald City” premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on NBC.