This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason The show doesn't premiere until the day after this post's publication; we got screeners.
Should You Follow The Yellow Brick Road To Emerald City?
Does the new fantasy show have brains and heart, or will watching it take courage?
What Is This Thing?
Dorothy is carried by a tornado from Kansas to Oz, a strange land ruled by a wizard in an uneasy alliance with three witches. When she lands, she inadvertently kills the Witch of the East, setting in motion a chain of events that will change Oz forever. Dorothy must journey to the Emerald City to find the Wizard, who she believes can send her home; along the way, she meets many strange characters.
Oh, and Dorothy is twenty and may be from Oz herself; magic is outlawed; the "Scarecrow" is a hot soldier with amnesia who's been crucified and left for dead; Toto is a police German shepherd; the Munchkins are some sort of aboriginal tribe; Glinda runs an order of virginal mystics; and the Wizard is a not-so-benevolent dictator. This is not the Wizard Of Oz you grew up with.
When Is It On?
Fridays at 9 PM ET on NBC. (The night of its premiere -- Friday, January 6 -- two episodes air back to back, starting at 9.)
Why Was It Made Now?
The Wizard Of Oz novels are in the public domain, and Wicked is a huge hit for NBC's parent company Universal, I guess? But also Peak TV. Remember when the broadcast networks (and later SyFy) would do weird miniseries based on fairy tales or whatever? This is sort of like that, but much more adult and with the budget of Game Of Thrones. NBC doesn't have much to lose, so why not throw a bunch of money at a block on the calendar when both GOT and Once Upon A Time are on hiatus and see if it works?
What's Its Pedigree?
All ten episodes are directed by Tarsem Singh, director of movies such as The Cell and Mirror Mirror (that's the Julia Roberts one), and R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" video. So: things known for looking gorgeous but not necessarily making a ton of sense. Executive Producer Shaun Cassidy (yes, that Shaun Cassidy) has a solid run of procedurals like Cold Case and Blue Bloods on his résumé, as well as some not completely embarrassing sci-fi and horror with American Gothic (the 1995 one with Gary Cole, not the one CBS aired this summer) and Invasion. His partner David Schulner has less inspiring credits, including Do No Harm, Dracula, and The Event. The cast is a multi-national and multi-racial mix of mostly unknowns, with Vincent D'Onofrio headlining as the Wizard, and Joely Richardson as Glinda. Stage goddess Fiona Shaw (True Blood, Harry Potter) makes an all-too-brief but completely fabulous appearance, too.
It certainly looks great (though I was playing my favorite game, Spot The Wig Lace, before we'd even left Kansas), with the aforementioned fat budget -- the result looks much more like an HBO show or a feature film than a SyFy miniseries or even Once Upon A Time. While the stories are very different, it's hard to avoid Game Of Thrones comparisons since, like that show, Emerald City was shot on location all over Europe; in the press notes, the producers boast that they "limited [their] CGI."
Also great-looking are Oliver Jackson-Cohen as...let's just say someone Dorothy meets...who manages to get his shirt off in nearly every episode I've watched; and Adria Arjona as Dorothy. Their roles are fairly dull by necessity, so at least they've been cast with charismatic actors who have real chemistry. Richardson; Shaw; Ana Ularu as West; Florence Kasumba as East; and to a more restrained extent D'Onofrio are where the real fun is: they look like they're having a ball camping it up as these famous witches and wizard. That I just called Vincent D'Onofrio "restrained" should tell you a lot about what kind of show this is.
I'm by no means an Oz expert, so true fans may both be more bothered by liberties taken and more amused by Easter eggs that I missed. But at what point does something stop riffing on an older work and start simply using character and place names that are in the public domain to tell a whole new story? If every detail of this Oz is different from the original, why bother besides marketing? Once you get past the initial moment of "I see what you did there," there's no point. In at least one instance, two fairly well-known characters have been combined into one for no good reason; others bear no real resemblance to their namesakes; and at the halfway point in the series, Dorothy has only met one of her famous traveling companions. All of which is fine, but is it Oz?
The press notes state that L. Frank Baum's "books were not originally written as children’s tales but as political allegory." Only that's not true at all, or if it is, Baum never fessed up. Not that there's not a ton of room to play with those ideas (that's basically the whole point of the novel Wicked), but it's more than a little labored here. And that's before we hear a track from Dark Side Of The Moon.
That said, once it gets going Emerald City is a pretty decent fantasy show on its own merits. If it's not for you, you've probably already stopped reading this, but if you're even remotely interested in the premiere episodes, I'd encourage you to watch one more. That's what I did -- to be a responsible critic and all -- and I wound up getting hooked and watching through Episode 5 before making myself stop because I had other things to do.
Because this is TV in 2017, the Wicked Witch of the West runs a brothel and is perpetually and eye-rollingly high on "poppies" (and also magic, because the ghost of Willow Rosenberg will haunt us forever). But also because this is TV in 2017, a character magically changing gender against her will -- a mere hand-wave in the books -- opens up a fascinating can of worms of trans and feminist issues (and gives them a decent way to address the fact that Glinda and West are literally a virgin and a whore, which, come on). The "Tin Man" -- who, in the books, casually hacked off his limbs and had them replaced -- now isn't sure he wants to be alive at all in his altered state. The "Scarecrow's" brain problems are the result of some serious PTSD. There's some deep mythology to the witches, which hasn't been fully revealed by the halfway point, and I'm very curious to see how that plays out, if only to watch Richardson and Ularu flounce about some more.
The show clicks best for me at two extremes: these serious storylines where they actually bother to update Baum's stories to make a statement about something (anything) or do something wholly original; and the campy sections where actors who are better than this are chewing the scenery in beautiful costumes. Too much of the show, at least in the beginning, is in the dull middle, with robot flying monkeys just for flying monkeys' sake. But when it's not winking at us, I found I wanted to know more about this world and how it works. By the time someone said "Are you a good witch or a bad witch" all the way in Episode 5, I found the reference to be an irritating intrusion rather than a clever nod. We get it. It doesn't matter.
Game Of Thrones is off until summer; Once Upon A Time isn't back until March; and nothing on SyFy will ever be anywhere near this competent. And not for nothing but it's far less bloody (though there is certainly some violence) and 100% less rapey than the HBO shows it's clearly emulating. Emerald City may not completely defy gravity, but if you like this genre and want to see some pretty shots of Croatia this winter, it isn't a bad road to ease on down.