Review: 'Emerald City' on NBC is a sinister trip down the yellow brick road
A yellow opium road. Crucified scarecrows. Flying monkey drones.
Definitely not Kansas.
The next trip to Oz is a far cry from the bubbly musicals and stage productions that came before.
NBC's small-screen reboot Emerald City, premiering Friday at 9 p.m., is a darker look at the characters and world created by L. Frank Baum more than 100 years ago.
The new series twists the story of Dorothy's adventures in Oz into a fantasy epic. It's aesthetically pleasing, but its plot often falls flat or feels long-winded.
Our heroine is a modernized Dorothy (True Detective's Adria Arjona), a nurse living with her adoptive parents in Lucas, Kan.
We get hints at what's been aching Dorothy all her life — reuniting with her birth mother — before she's swept into a tornado while seeking shelter in a police car with K9 Toto.
It's a lot to take in, and she's only just landed in Oz.
This Dorothy's Oz is filled with familiar characters — a yellow brick road, a Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, wicked witches and a wizard — but that's really where the similarities to the iconic 1939 film end.
Emerald City's scarecrow isn't a straw-stuffed garden guard missing a brain. He's a war-torn soldier (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) missing his memory. As for the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, you won't recognize them on first meeting.
The brick road he and Dorothy travel on isn't painted yellow, it's blanketed with mustardy opium pollen.
The witches are made out to be more wicked than they really are. Mistress East (Florence Kasumba) is a fierce witch who controls the weather. When she inevitably dies, Dorothy inherits her glittery ruby claws.
The two remaining witches — Mistress West (Ana Ularu) and Glinda (Joely Richardson) — seek to reestablish magic in Oz. The rest of Oz fears them.
The arrogant and badly-wigged Wizard (Vincent D'Onofrio) keeps his rule over the Emerald City with fear of magic and instilling that he alone can protect it from The Beast Forever.
Dorothy's only goal is to get back home and find her mother. She's determined to do it not with a little dog and a handbasket, but with a police dog and a handgun.
But after six episodes, she finds that her landing in Oz wasn't a coincidence.
The multi-layered storyline blends iconic characters with steampunk style and magical fantasy, making Emerald City feel both familiar and brand new.
Its storytelling hints of Game of Thrones, but unfortunately lacks a solid foundation. There's plenty of politics and scheming, but the characters aren't complex enough to empathize with.
It's also difficult to keep track of all the storylines. The multitude of characters are inspired by those in Baum's 14 books on Oz. So unless you're up to speed on the tale of Princess Ozma or the Land of Ev, watching will be a bit overwhelming. A series like this could benefit from a weekend binge on Netflix or Hulu rather than waiting a week between episodes. Or maybe just keep Google open to look up who Ojo is.
Its lack of focus could be due to the series' chaotic history. NBC originally ordered it in 2015, cancelled it, then brought it back with a new showrunner. The 10-episode series is directed by Tarsem Singh, who directed the 2000 thriller The Cell and R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion music video.
Where the plot is dull and sometimes lifeless, the scenery shines. Luxurious palaces are crusted with gems and painted with vibrant colors. Dreamy costumes like the blood red fluttering ribbon cape worn by Mistress East are drool-worthy. Glinda's stunning marble fortress is as stark white and cold as Mistress West's brothel homestead is sultry.
Emerald City may not have the narrative backing for critical acclaim, but at least it's pretty.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.