NBC’s ambitious Emerald City, premiering tonight, is occasionally stunning, sometimes emotionally interesting, and often an audacious reimagining of not just The Wizard of Oz, but all of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. But mostly it’s as empty as the Scarecrow’s brain.
Emerald City has taken years to reach our screens. It was first meant to air in 2015, it was canceled due to “creative differences” between the original showrunner and the studio. In 2015, NBC resurrected the show with new executive producers David Schulner and Shaun Cassidy. The 10 episodes delivered to NBC were all directed by Tarsem Singh (The Fall), and feature an older Dorothy (Adria Arjona), a police dog Toto, Glinda (Joely Richardson) as a sort of high priestess, and the Wicked Witch (Ana Ularu) as the owner of a brothel. Welcome to the latest attempt to “modernize” The Wizard of Oz.
Emerald City does try to avoid using CG for its locations, mercifully avoiding trapping its actors in rooms full of greenscreen. That said, it means that Emerald City itself isn’t a unique design, but Park Güell in Barcelona, with no disguise at all. It’s jarring to see people treat Antoni Gaudí’s instantly identifiable designs as part of Oz. It instantly takes you out of the story, not that there was much keeping you there. Oz is also curiously washed out, only making use of color as a contrast to the gray, brown, and white of everything else. That means that Emerald City isn’t emerald-colored. In fact, none of the colors L. Frank Baum assigned to various parts of his world are taken advantage of at all, save some blue facepaint on the Munchkins.
Emerald City isn’t good. It’s frustrating. It’s clearly trying to make some points, but, try as you might, you won’t find anything other than the obvious: extremism is bad, magic and science aren’t opposites, love is hard, and there’s also a trans* character who struggles with being what’s expected. The last one is the one handled the best, and the most interesting since it’s mostly an examination of something L. Frank Baum put in his original stories but didn’t examine the psychology of at all.
But all those things are so obviously executed that they don’t justify the over-the-top production they have been given. Nor do they justify the over-the-top plot that makes almost no sense when you try to figure it out. It seems mostly like everyone in Oz really, really liked Game of Thrones and decided it was a playbook for how to run a world. It’s so baroque that you assume there has to be something more, but there isn’t. Tarsem Singh uses loaded imagery all the time, but none of it seems to mean anything. For example, the Scarecrow character, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, is found on a cross. Is he sacrificed? Is he a martyr? No. It’s just a cool image that you will tear your hair out trying to figure out. And that frustration lasts the whole show. All the stunning tableaus lovingly put together by the director feel like they should have some impact, but they don’t.
Another plot point that I tore my hair out over was the Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays him as less competent, less physically violent Wilson Fisk). Add him to the list of men who feel jilted that the world, and the woman they were obsessed with, didn’t fall to their feet just because he felt he was owed it. I honestly cannot tell if we’re supposed to find his backstory sympathetic or if it was supposed to make us hate him more. I hated him a lot, but the predictable way everything else in the show was handled made me think that it was meant to make me feel bad for him. But maybe it was a subversion. Or maybe I just wanted someone, somewhere, to finally raise the idea that being obsessive isn’t okay.
The only part of Emerald City that is interesting is that the creators obviously know their Oz. This isn’t just another Wizard of Oz remake—they’ve read all the Baum books (or at least the Wikipedia summaries of them) and they’ve torn them apart and pieced them all together. Figuring out how they’ve done that will keep Oz fans paying attention for a little while, but it can’t carry a show.
There are too many characters, most given too little time for the audience to connect to them, including, weirdly enough, Dorothy. Her desire to be something “more” is the only hint we get that she’s not happy in Kansas. And she never displays enough attachment to her life there to justify her intense, never-wavering-unless-the-plot-dictates-it desire to go home.
Emerald City is so concerned with looking a certain way and with the cleverness of its own use of Baum’s books, that it forgot to make anything else work. There’s so much going on that it’s easy to assume there’s something more going on underneath the surface. But there isn’t. It’s all hollow.