We’re off to see a wizard, but Dorothy’s journey is more bloody and brutal than you might expect in NBC‘s reworking of the classic tales from Oz…
There have been a ton of new series in the last year or so that have looked back in looking forwards – grasping at old movies or shows, beloved characters or familiar set-ups to create spin-offs or reinventions. So when Emerald City was announced by NBC, there was probably an audible sigh that went up and the fear that somewhere over the rainbow a barrel was being scraped. After all, beloved though The Wizard of Oz most certainly is, the general feeling seems to be that the original 1939 film – based on the L. Frank Baum book – is a singular, timeless classic – famous and infamous for Judy Garland’s performance, its vivid colours and iconic songs… but the aspects that came afterwards… less so. The reinventions of the mythology (straight cinematic remakes, the homages, the more ‘hip The Wiz etc) are often of their period and more opportune. They may have been good in the moment, but people go back to the source-material of their childhoods rather than the spin-offs.
That being said, this isn’t your great-great-great-grandmother’s Oz. It’s a more contemporary if fantastical retelling full of fierce warriors, waterboarding, police-dogs and malevolent magic.
The resulting series, which began its ten week run on the American network this past weekend, is a different beast of the same species… and far more interesting animal than you might think from such oft-repeated source material. It’s darker, more dangerous and feels more like a production that was intended for the risk-taking cable stations than the primetime networks. Of course, there’s only do far networks can go – no nudity or swearing is allowed because of the broadcasting rules, but somehow theystill managed to smuggle in suicides, opium-dens, a few background orgies and the kind of conflict you might find on a ‘Casual Friday’ in Game of Thrones‘ Westeros.
Emerald City is an unusual hybrid of a show – one that has certainly devoured that source-material but the result is a production that zigs when the Yellow Brick Road zags and seeks to subvert some of the viewers expectations. It’s certainly different, which can be taken both as a positive or negative and – in this case – a bit of both. The reinvention doesn’t always work and there’s a distinct feeling that in an effort to search out a suitable demographic Emerald City has intent but no real distinct identity, tilting towards shows such as Game of Thrones, then Vikings, then Into the Badlands and Shakespeare then pantomime in quick succession.
It’s a very ornate, beautiful show and it feels like one of the richest canvases currently on screen. Director Tarsem Singh (whose work on The Cell and Mirror, Mirror speaks for itself) is a master of creating vivid colours and spectacle and he’s been let loose on Oz in a way that largely pays off – keeping our attention on the pigments and figments of his imagination even when the script itself wavers a little. There’s darkness and action on show, some of it subtle, some of it as overt as you’re likely to see on NBC and the pacing in the two-hour pilot is pitched just about right to give viewers an idea of where we are and where the Yellow Brick Road will take us through this new landscape.
Adria Arjona as Dorothy, Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Lucas (the remnant of the Scarecrow character), Daredevil‘s Vincent D’Onofrio as the Wizard, Joely Richardson as Glinda and a host of familiar supporting faces all give their all, albeit in different styles The tonal clashes could still be the show’s undoing and it’s unclear if the result will fall into the trap of being too light for Game of Thrones fans while being too dark for an average Friday night audience. The visuals will suffice for now and the tweaking of existing Oz elements is intriguing enough to hold attention while they remain inventive.
It’s much better than expected but with eight more hours to go, this new version of Oz will have to prove its courage if it’s to be made out gold-leaf rather than tin and straw.