EMERALD CITY: Friday 9PM on NBC – Change the Channel
EMERALD CITY will make you wish you’d stayed in Kansas. It’s a muddle of The Wizard of Oz, Mad Max, Game of Thrones (in their dreams) and that terrible Syfy updated version of Alice In Wonderland from a few years ago, and you’d think that with all that going on it would at least be an entertaining mess, but it isn’t. It methodically ticks off “edgy” boxes. There’s a diverse cast, with a Latina Dorothy (Adria Arjona), along with a Munchkin-ish group depicted as sort of Native Oz-ians, and another character who appears to be trans. There’s a dark tone–the show’s version of the Scarecrow is Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), whom Dorothy discovers crucified along the yellow brick (heavy on the poppies) road, with amnesia in place of straw in his head. There’s plenty of violence, including a scene in the 2d hour where Lucas bloodily pulverizes a duplicitous medicine woman (Fiona Shaw). What’s lacking is engrossing–or even comprehensible–drama, or any characters one can care about.
Emerald City has had its share of behind the scenes issues. The show was originally created by Matthew Arnold, who gave NBC the awful Russian reality-show-turns-int0-a-slasher-thriller Siberia, and Josh Friedman was brought in as showrunner, but then fired, and the project was dropped. (Friedman is still credited as co-creator, and as co-writer with Arnold of the opening hour and story for Hour 2.) However, then the network brought it back to life with David Schulner (of the forgettable NBC Jekyll & Hyde thriller Do No Harm) as the new showrunner. (Schulner and Justin Doble share credit for the Hour 2 script.) The other key creative decision was bringing in the film director Tarsem Singh to tackle all 10 hours. Singh is a notable visual stylist, but in Emerald City, as in all his other work (The Cell, The Fall, Immortals, the neo-fairy tale Mirror Mirror), his visuals devour the storytelling. In short, there was no one around who was actually capable of setting forth a complex story in a clear way anchored by engaging characters. 2 hours into the saga, it’s not clear what any of the protagonists want (other than Dorothy thinking the Wizard will send her back to Kansas, an idea that makes no sense when Dorothy is supposed to be a level-headed adult nurse), let alone how they hope to achieve it.
Instead, veteran actors like Vincent D’Onofrio (as the Wizard) and Joely Richardson (as a Wicked Witch) intone terrible dialogue while the younger performers put as much punch as they can into their underdeveloped roles, and Singh concentrates his energy on giant statues, post-apocalyptic landscapes, and a witch ritual/dance number that makes The OA look grounded in objective reality. Mostly, though, for all the milling crowds, poisons and torture sequences, it’s just dull. Nothing in this Emerald City sparkles at all, despite Singh’s careful compositions and use of Spanish and Hungarian locations. The journey on that yellow brick road is a trudge.
L. Frank Baum’s classic novels have survived at least 3 musicals, many animations, and a James Franco movie, so no doubt The Wizard of Oz will emerge unscathed from Emerald City. It’s yet another flame-out, though, for a broadcaster trying to find a voice in the 21st century world of home entertainment, a place that for a legacy network like NBC is even stranger than Oz.