Props to NBC for the sense of adventure it sometimes brings to the one-hour drama format. Where CBS churns out highly rated but exceedingly similar crime procedurals and ABC sticks mainly to a house style of sudsy scandalousness, NBC has, over the past few years, offered up a few shows that were intriguing, risky and, alas, usually cancel-prone.
I’m thinking here of the 1960s noir drama “Aquarius,” which starred David Duchovny as an L.A. detective crossing paths with the Manson family; or “American Odyssey,” about a female Army sergeant caught up in a shocking terrorist plot. Or the more successful “Shades of Blue,” a crooked-cop drama starring Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta, scheduled to return in March.
Now here’s the network’s “Emerald City,” a gloomy, violent and often sluggish take on L. Frank Baum’s storybook world of Oz that premieres Friday night. Long in development (it was touted on NBC’s menu a season or two back, then vanished, then returned), “Emerald City” vividly imagines an Oz that more closely resembles the worst of Westeros, the chaotically dangerous continent of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Most of us know Oz mainly from the Technicolor wonders seen in the 1939 MGM musical version of “The Wizard of Oz.” While it could certainly be a fearsome place, at least it had lollipops.
This Oz is bleaker, steam-punkier and far more cruel – and if you haven’t clued in already, “Emerald City” is not a good choice for younger viewers. An adult Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona), a small-town Kansas nurse with all sorts of unanswered questions about her real parents, seeks shelter in a police car during a tornado and is swept away through a dimensional portal, crash-landing in Eastern Oz. (A German shepherd K9 is in the car with her and becomes her loyal companion, Toto.)
A fierce tribe of locals, believing Dorothy has killed a witch, begrudgingly sends her off on a pollen-dusted stone path (aka the Yellow Brick Road) to the Emerald City and the all-powerful, deeply neurotic wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) who rules there. It isn’t long before Dorothy and Toto come upon the ruins of a burned village, where they free a man named Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has been tarred and feathered and left on a cross to die. Beset by amnesia, he offers to accompany them to see the wizard.
Other basic outlines of Oz lore are similarly established bit by bit, with little cues and symbols to reward fans of Baum’s entire oeuvre – which, as children’s literature goes, was always an acquired taste. Unlike other modern adaptations (such as the Broadway musical “Wicked”), “Emerald City” is inventive yet devoid of charm, relying mostly on malevolence as its central theme. Its tone is far more bitter than ABC’s storybook drama “Once Upon a Time,” yet the seriousness doesn’t rise to a “Game of Thrones” level.
A dourness persists through all 10 episodes, which were written and conceived as an epic film. Tarsem Singh, a movie director with a background in music videos, directed the entire series; the visual qualities that make “Emerald City” so intriguing can’t make up for a meandering narrative that chugs and sputters along, with no one to really root for. The characters are flat, and the actors playing them seem as befuddled as the viewer about the ambiguous shades of good and evil from one scene to the next. Glinda (Joely Richardson), ostensibly a good witch who surrendered her magic to the Wizard, is running some sort of unhappy boarding school for girls, while the wicked witch from the west (Ana Ularu), who simply calls herself “West,” is an opium addict with doubts about her inner nature and the uses of magic.
My hunch is that those who’ve read and studied all 14 of Baum’s “Oz” books will find more to appreciate here than the casual Oz visitor; they may also take umbrage at some of the pick-and-choose ways that “Emerald City” has adapted the saga and its metaphors to modern use. Further subplots follow the woes of Jack (Gerran Howell), who, after a traumatic injury, has his limbs replaced with tin and his heart replaced with an artificial ticker; and Tip (Jordan Loughran), a boy who becomes a girl, who, a Baum reader may well presume, is destined to become Princess Ozma.
There’s a lot here to sort through; unfortunately, the makers of “Emerald City” are not particularly skilled at the sorting process necessary for a sprawling tale. Oz is a fascinating place at first, but, like Dorothy, one soon gets the itch to leave.
“Emerald City” (two hours) premieres Friday at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.