TV Review: ‘Emerald City’ on NBC

Review: 'The Wizard of Oz' arrives

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.

TV Review: 'Emerald City' on NBC

Drama; 10 episodes (4 reviewed); NBC, Fri. Jan. 6, 9 p.m. 60 mins.


Executive producers, David Schulner, Shaun Cassidy, Tarsem Singh, Matthew Arnold, Josh Friedman.


Joely Richardson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Adria Arjona, Ana Ularu, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Jordan Loughran, Gerran Howell, Mido Hamada, Isabel Lucas, Stefanie Martini, Suan-Li Ong, Florence Kasumba, Roxy Sternberg

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  1. Julie Howells says:

    Emerald City was the best series ever on this network , your idiots for canceling it!!! I shall never watch this network again!!!

  2. This review hits the mark on every level. The costumes, scenery and some of the underlying ideas are first rate, but the story, acting and directing have a lot to be desired. Every relationship in the show is just another “so what?” I really wanted this to be great because I love TV and movies based on fantasy. I’m sticking with it just to see how the damn thing ends, but I doubt there is much delight or surprise to come (other than what’s under the Queen’s mask). And by the way, the show has its representations of the scarecrow and tin man, but where’s the cowardly lion? If you want good TV fantasy/sci-fi, watch Orphan Black, Grimm or Marvel’s Agents of Shield where every minute is fun, suspenseful or shocking.

  3. ron michaud says:

    GREAT SHOW……..

  4. Jess says:

    This is a great show! Amazing concept… who cares that it doesn’t mirror the 1939 Judy Garland film… why copy? I love that OZ is dark and more in line with “Return to Oz” from the 1980’s. The director is one of my favorites and his work is stunning… see “The Fall” and you’ll love his work.

    I hope this show stays on air and does not get cancelled.

  5. Gwen L. says:

    I liked it. I found the spins on the classic story captivating and by the end of the pilot, there were several character mysteries starting to unfold leaving me looking forward to the next episode. I did think the dialogue was unclear in some parts but fortunately that was remedied by turning on subtitles.

  6. Angel Summer says:

    This was the most awful show I have watched. I also turned it off before it was over. I could not understand any of it, and the acting was boring.

  7. Linda says:

    This should have never been named Emerald City. It does not compare to anything in the Wizard of Oz. If it had chosen a different title and chosen different names for the characters it might have made it. It was to the point of laughable in some scenes especially the end of the first episode. Costumes were good and some of the special effects but they need to rethink when comparing to a classic like the Wizard of Oz. I think it should be cancelled and rewrote.

  8. David says:

    20 minutes was all I could take of the pilot. Not even the special effects will hold your interest when the characters have no substance, no charm, no flash.

  9. Ellie says:

    I barely made it through the first half of the pilot. It’s dreadful, lacks any enthusiasm and just plain bad.

  10. Neva Rhoden says:

    This is of course only you opinion. Some will like some wont that is just the way of the world.

    • Maria Kramer says:

      The costuming was well done, the staging was creative and the premise of the storyline as it was presented in the promos was intriguing. Unfortunately, none of these will save the show. The actual show failed miserably to impress. Just like a book where the author must grab you in the first few pages, or it will never attract readers so must the writers and actors. This show continued to lose my interest until I stopped watching 25 minutes into it. Another failed attempt by NBC.

    • Thomas S says:

      I would agree that to each their own But I watched about 3/4 of it and it never seemed to go anywhere. It might have better if it hadn’t been so closely aligned with The Wizard of Oz.

  11. freakiefabulous says:

    “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.” Lets not forget the wonderful Vfx artists who helped created a huge amount of the world of Oz including the fluttering dress added in CG and the CG wide shots of the Underground prison.

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