You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t seen “The Wizard of Oz,” read the source material by L. Frank Baum, or come across some retelling of Dorothy’s picaresque journey. And therein lies the core problem with “Emerald City.” In look and tone, it does not imitate the classic 1939 film starring Judy Garland, but this darker take on the story remains so familiar that, although it’s gorgeous, there’s too little tension and suspense driving it.
There are imaginative nods to the iconic film: A rainbow takes the form of a stained-glass decoration, and monkey statues are part of an elaborate drone system in Oz. Director Tarsem Singh, who is also an executive producer on “Emerald City,” displays a sensibility that dovetails well with both halves of the show’s name. “Emerald City” features saturated jewel tones and inventive and elaborate urban landscapes, and Singh’s use of color and his talent for composition, especially when the characters travel through evocative deserts, are impressive.
Though other epic tales like “Game of Thrones,” “Vikings” and particularly the “Lord of the Rings” movies are echoed in the drama’s aesthetics, Singh and the show’s creative team — costume designer Trisha Biggar, production designer Dave Warren and director of photography Colin Watkinson — bring a distinctive flair to this re-imagined Oz. The fluttering red dress of a particularly powerful witch and the dank, dreamlike torture of the underground prison she created for her most unruly subjects are tableaus likely to leave a lasting impression.
That said, the familiarity of the story and the lack of charisma displayed by core characters combine to impart the idea that there is less here than meets the eye. And it’s difficult to escape the impression that “Emerald City” has imported too much of a strain of frustrating nihilism that can be found in a large swath of modern dramas, including “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.”
It’s not that the HBO and AMC programs are consistently hopeless, but both tend to veer into the kind of glum episodic resolutions that reinforce the idea that goodness and optimism are usually defeated and love and friendship are bound to come to grief. Tragic and sad events certainly transpire in real life and are fair game on screen, but when they frequently happen to characters that aren’t particularly well-developed, or when savage moments put undercooked relationships to the test, the pessimistic atmosphere these moments generate can give a story both a predictable trajectory and a deadening flatness. “Game of Thrones” gets by because it has a number of characters with depth and poignant dilemmas, but “Emerald City” struggles to make its familiar archetypes — a crafty wizard, a disgraced warrior, a heroine on a quest — more than one-dimensional.
Among the more predictable elements, there are jolts of energy here and there. A funeral dance performed by a group of powerful women is a twitchy, Gothic delight, and Joely Richardson brings steely intelligence to her role as a canny, observant witch. But Vincent D’Onofrio, who was so quietly menacing and complicated in “Daredevil,” flounders here as the Wizard of Oz. Adria Arjona and Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who play Dorothy and her main companion in the early going, can’t overcome the stumbling blocks their characters are saddled with: Their backstories feel rote, and their dialogue is too often bland and unmemorable.
Adaptations of novels and comic books are not going away; if anything, in TV, they’re starting to seem more common than original concepts. While there’s nothing wrong with this trend, there are degrees of difference when it comes to previously published intellectual property. Those taking on iconic stories with broad awareness in mainstream popular culture have to bring something new and different to the party. But “Emerald City” only intermittently displays the kind of sustained energy that comes from a comprehensive, deep and truly exciting new vision.
Images of a man who looks like he’s been crucified, flying characters who commit suicide and multiple shots of charred bodies are the kind of things that begin to weigh down this slender reed of an adaptation. Taking “The Wizard of Oz” — a story of hard-won hope and unlikely fellowship — in a grim direction is certainly a valid choice, but “Emerald City” needs more than fantastic visuals to make that decision worthwhile. With more complicated characters and relationships and a livelier sense of momentum, it might have been a more artful meditation on the use of power and the costs of loyalty. But, echoing the fate of those grounded monkeys, the plight of these travelers never really takes flight.