Spoilers follow for Emerald City episodes one and two. You’ve been warned.
Like clockwork flying monkeys, every few years brings a new twist on The Wizard of Oz. Sometimes things go right and we get a hit like Wicked. Sometimes they don’t, and we end up with a miscast, sexist mess like The Great and Powerful Oz. Even with failures, the land over the rainbow has proved irresistible to creators, and NBC is hoping audiences will feel the same way about the new limited series Emerald City. Odds are, they will.
The newest take on L. Frank Baum’s classic story stars Adria Arjona (True Detective) as Dorothy Gale, a nurse who was mysteriously abandoned by as a child. She’s not good at relationships and longs for something “more.” While trying to reconnect with the mother that abandoned her, Dorothy finds a dead body and an injured birth mom right before her wish for “more” comes true in the form a tornado that whisks her away from Kansas in a police car—complete with a German Shepherd—to Oz.
Dorothy lands on a witch, as one does in these situations, and is taken prisoner by… well, they’re not munchkins so much as “free tribes,” meaning people wearing lots of face paint and feathers. The not-Munchkins set Dorothy on her way down the yellow brick road towards Emerald City and the wizard that could possibly send her home. Sounds mostly familiar, except the road is yellow because it’s dusted with opium (a seriously impractical paving material); the Wizard is a totalitarian ruler who has outlawed magic except when it’s used by the witches he controls; and Dorothy’s coming heralds the return to Oz of an amorphous evil called “the beast forever.”
Just like in the original film, we’re left to wonder if Dorothy is a good witch or a bad witch (or something more). Only a witch can kill another witch, and when she offs the Wicked Witch of the East for the second time, it sticks. She acquires some ruby accessories of unknown power and starts picking up strays while playing the hero as she does anything but ease on down the road. Meanwhile in the titular city, the Wizard, played by Vincent D’Onofrio and a truly impressive beard, and the remaining witches–Glinda of the North (Joely Richdrdson) and West (Ana Ularu)–maneuver against each other for control of Oz and magic. There are no bubbles, but there are flying monkeys, though they’re just mechanical minions of the wizard.
The show is at its best when it takes the kernels of what we all know about Oz and expands them into a new mythos. Emerald City does a wonderful job of reimagining classic characters and situations in new ways, slowly revealing a world to us that’s familiar enough to give us some clues as to what may happen next and yet remain new enough to be fascinating.
The Scarecrow becomes a man Dorothy finds nearly crucified on the side of the road, possibly a soldier for the Wizard, whose lack of a brain translates here to a lost memory. Those of you who, like me, found yourselves weirdly shipping Dorothy and Scarecrow as kids will be very pleased with the palpable chemistry between Dorothy and the man she names Lucas (Oliver Jackson Cohen). Things especially take off in the second half of the two-episode premiere when Dorothy and Lucas end up facing Mombi (Fiona Shaw), and fans of Oz lore learn that it won’t just be the famous first book of Baum’s thirteen-book Oz series that will serve as inspiration going forward.
Emerald City is more a steampunk Game of Thrones than The Wiz, in the very best way. Oz is as expansive and engrossing as Westeros, without the pointless nudity, rape and violence. The scores of strong female characters are very much the focus. Sex has its place, but it’s used well and not gratuitously in what is without a doubt a woman’s show.
The two major male characters so far are a refreshing dude in distress and an antagonist who’s practically Trumpian. Indeed, though the show has been in development for years, it feels particularly relevant in its depiction of a megalomaniacal ruler who promises that the only way to safety is through obedience, someone who hides behind the walls he’s built while persecuting powerful women. Even making Dorothy a Latina seems prescient, because what is The Wizard of Oz if not the story of an immigrant who saves the day?
Directed by Tarsem Singh, the show is breathtakingly beautiful, with a cinematic look that takes full advantage of the landscapes and architecture of the Spanish locations where it was filmed. There are several visual nods to the original Oz film that I especially loved, including a great flip of the famous scene where Judy Garland steps from black and white real life and into technicolor Oz. There’s also a very creepy version of those talking trees that’s just one of many wonderful visuals on display.
The pacing of the first episode is at times lacking, with not enough time spent in Kansas establishing who Dorothy is before we’re whisked away into a jarring first introduction of the Wizard. However, the show is strongly acted and written with enough mystery, dynamic characters and surprises to suck you in like a tornado. Even if you don’t know a munchkin from a tik tok, Emerald City is certainly worth your time.
Emerald City premieres Friday, January 6 at 9/8c on NBC.
(images via NBCUniversal)
Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.
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