This review contains minor spoilers and slight references to later episodes.
L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and its sequels have been adapted for the screen for nearly as long as there has been cinema. There’s something about the tale of farmgirl Dorothy Gale being swept into the strange, magical, and sometimes scary land of Oz that has stuck in American popular consciousness and never let go.
Emerald City is the latest addition to the long on-screen Oz tradition, but, for all of the ways it draws from its obvious source material, it’s strengths and weakness are defined by other pop culture works — most obviously that benchmark of modern fantasy TV drama Game Of Thrones. No one is going to break out into a round of “Over The Rainbow” here.
No, Emerald City has literally replaced the bricks of the Yellow Brick Road with poppy pollen. And, for all of the ways in which Emerald City tries to give us a fresh new take on the classic Oz story, it’s the moments when it’s inspired by other pop culture mainstays altogether when it truly shines.
Rather than sticking close to the story of Dorothy (Adria Arjona), here a 20-year-old nurse driven by questions about her birth mother, Emerald City casts a wide net, a la Game Of Thrones. In the premiere, we are introduced to the other characters and settings of this adaptation.
There is the Wizard himself, a man of science played by Vincent D’Onofrio who has banned all magic from Oz. From his perch in Emerald City, he enjoys a tense command of the final three “cardinal witches” of the land: Glinda (Joely Richardson), The Wicked Witch of the West (Ana Ularu), and The Wicked Witch of the East (Florence Kasumba).
When Dorothy is swept up by a tornado and brought to Oz, the police car she has sought refuge in strikes and seemingly kills East, throwing the leaders of Oz — the Wizard and East’s two witch sisters — into shock and, in the latter two cases, grief. They see it as a sign that The Beast Forever, a force that regularly ravages Oz, has returned to seek vengeance once again. The Wizard sends his loyal, stoic swordsman Eamonn (Mido Hamada) out to find and kill whoever or whatever came through the tornado. Bad news for Dorothy and her little dog, too. (In this case, a not-so-little German shepherd, actually.)
Meanwhile, Dorothy has set out to find the Wizard in the hopes that he will be able to send her back home, unbeknownst that he has ordered her swift death. Along the way, Dorothy stumbles upon and saves a hot amnesiac soldier strapped to a crucifix. Yes, this is Emerald City‘s Scarecrow. Dorothy calls him Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), after her hometown in Kansas, and they immediately start staring too long into one another’s eyes in a way that only isn’t awkward in movies.
If this all seems like a lot for a young woman from our world to take in, no one told Dorothy. This is the major problem of both the premiere and the show moving forward: how unaffected Dorothy seems by the weird, dangerous, and physically exhausting things she is experiencing. She is meant to be the audience surrogate character, a regular-type lady dragged into the horror and wonder of this strange new world. And she’s just kind of “meh” about the whole surreal experience. As an audience surrogate, that’s kind of the worst possible reaction because then the audience wonders if they should be “meh” about the whole thing, too.
The Wizard, too — another iconic part of The Wizard Of Oz narrative — is one of the weaker parts of the show, despite the casting of D’Onofrio. Despite the Wizard’s apparent salvation of Oz during The Beast Forever’s last attack, its unclear why the people of Oz are still following this lacklustre interloper. It seems especially plot hole-y that Glinda and West play by his rules. Yes, the “joke” of the Wizard of Oz is that he is just a regular man behind the curtain, but that means he needs to put on a good show. Emerald City‘s Wizard is not particularly intimidating, charismatic, or clever. Instead, he is a middle-aged creep in a bad wig.
Luckily for Emerald City, Dorothy and the Wizard are part of a larger ensemble and, as the season progresses, the episodes allow more time for other characters, settings, and themes.
The Wicked Witch of the West as a drugged-up brothel owner is a bit on the nose in theory, but Ularu’s performance brings a spark to the screen every time she’s there. Likewise, Richardson’s Glinda is an icy sorceress whose power and bitterness are always waiting just below the polished surface, a la Cersei Lannister. I am much more interested in these characters who know what’s at stake and who are invested in the world of Oz.
The final piece to the premiere’s plot puzzle comes in Tip (Jordan Loughran), a young boy held captive by a apothecary witch intent on “protecting” Tip and his “bad blood” from the outside world. Though Tip might seem like a random addition to the case, he and his best friend Jack (Gerran Howell) become two of the most unexpected and compelling parts of the narrative moving forward.
Emerald City takes a few episodes to find its footing, but by the end of Episode 3, I was much more invested in these characters and this show. Emerald City takes too long setting up familiar elements in its first few episodes, but, by the time Episode 4 rolls around, it can start to tell its own story. This is where the show really shines, especially in the Tin Man and Tip storylines, which I won’t spoil for you here.
There are two things Emerald City gets right from the get-go. One: the diversity of the cast. (Though, it would have been nice to see a few more women behind the scenes, especially for a story so based in explorations of female agency.) Two: the visuals.
All ten episodes of the show’s first season were directed by Tarsem Singh (The Fall, Immortals, The Cell), who also serves as an executive producer on the show. Singh, known as a visually-inspired director, filmed in locations across Europe in an attempt to craft a distinct, real, and beautiful aesthetic for the show. The gamble worked and, along with costume designer Trisha Biggar, production designer Dave Warren, and director of photography Colin Watkinson, Singh has created an epic visual feast that is not often seen on network TV.
Traditionally, TV is known as a writer’s medium. While the director generally changes from episode to episode, working within the same visual style outlined in the pilot, the writers stay the same, which gives them the most control over the shape of the narrative.
As the worlds of television and film move closer together in the modern era, the classification of television as a writers medium is becoming less true. Sure, there are still many traditional TV shows that keep the same power structure and format, but, in this era of #PeakTV, there is also room for TV that is more defined by its directorial vision than its writerly one.
Though Emerald City still falls under the traditional network model, with writer-showrunners as decision-makers, it is somewhat unique on the landscape of network TV for the amount of story and power it gave to its director Tarsem Singh.
Singh told Collider:
[The industry is] changing a little bit now because the networks are trying to compete with the big boys. Otherwise, the scale of what they end up doing looks too tiny. You either need $400 million to do these projects the way that I want them, or your pilot will cost 98% of the budget.
So, [NBC] decided to take a risk, and this was the project that it happened with. All of the episodes needed to be written before we shot them, which is not the way that a network works, at all. With the schedule they have, they’ll write one episode, and then, if they don’t like a character, they’ll write them out. And then, they’ll write another episode.
They tried to say that it didn’t make sense to write them all first, but in this particular case, it’s more like a revolution than an evolution. It’s just the way it had to be done.
In other words, Singh and the show’s writers have shaped a 10-hour story that is tied together not just by the typical continuity of episodic network TV, but also the visual continuity of feature films. If you’re looking for a show that grabs you from its first scene and doesn’t let go, you might not have time for Emerald City. However, if you’re interested in giving time to a visually-stunning, yet ultimately inconsistent ensemble fantasy, then you might want to give Emerald City a shot.