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EMERALD CITY Delights in Taking Us Far, Far Away from Kansas (Review)

EMERALD CITY Delights in Taking Us Far, Far Away from Kansas (Review)

You’re right to cringe whenever TV and film executives announce that they’re “re-imagining” a beloved classic. The acid reflux you experience is also justified whenever they proclaim without shame or irony that it’s going to be “gritty.” But believe it or not, you shouldn’t need to keep the antacids close at hand when you check out Emerald City, NBC’s gritty re-imagining of Dorothy Gale’s adventures in Oz. Creator Matthew Arnold, showrunner Josh Friedman, and director Tarsem Singh have worked hard to define the unique edges of this, the thousandth incarnation of this popular story. Like telling our own dream back to us, the challenge of taking on a tale this well known is a matter of getting eyebrows to raise so that eyes can’t roll. They’ve achieved that difficult balance with a fantastical vision of Oz as a grounded nation, cinema-worthy visuals, and particularly strong casting.

Adria Arjona plays Dorothy as a capable nurse who speaks fluent Spanish and struggles equally with being abandoned at birth and with the reemergence of her biological mother in her life. These character beats are quick and meaningful, but the show is anxious to get her out of the cornfields and into the storm. She’s swept up into the twister we all know and love while stuck in a police car (complete with a K-9 unit barking in the backseat…), waking up from the chaos in a snow-kissed wood next to an impeccably dressed dead body.

EMERALD CITY -- "Prison of the Abject" Episode 102 -- Pictured: Fiona Shaw as Mombi -- (Photo by: Rico Torres/NBC)

Except for the modern flourishes, Emerald City‘s changes all stem from a reinstatement of L. Frank Baum’s original vision, eschewing the candy coating of the original film in favor of an earthy, feral realm marked by constant fear, parlor politics, and a network-friendly variant of Westeros-caliber sexuality. Dorothy isn’t welcomed as a hero for accidentally killing the witch of the East (Florence Kasumba); she is waterboarded as a murdering intruder. The Scarecrow (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) isn’t a jolly sort singing about brains; he’s an amnesiac being crucified when Dorothy stumbles upon him. The bricks of the infamous road aren’t yellow; they’re dusted with yellow opium seeds.

It’s also clear from the start that one does not simply walk into the Emerald City. Skipping with a song on your lips is out of the question. There are plenty of treacherous encounters on and off the path, including Tip (Jordan Loughran), a boy kept locked away by a fan-favorite Ozite. Tip is also the most promising character in terms of intrigue and invention, embedded in Dorothy’s familiar trek like a winking spark of ingenuity and redemption.

EMERALD CITY -- "The Beast Forever" Episode 101-- Pictured: (l-r) Vincent D'onofrio as The Wizard, Roxy Sternberg as Elizabeth, Susan-Li Ong as Isabel -- (Photo by: Rico Torres/NBC)

Of course the gem at the meaty center is Vincent D’Onofrio as Orson Welles as The Wizard of Oz. A robust faker in a luxurious wig who shouts at his citizens in the square about protecting them, and who snaps–do-you-know-how-I-got-these-scars style–at his foes in close quarters. In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect and want from D’Onofrio. Open with bluster. Add layers later.

His natural adversary is Glinda (a rock solid Joely Richardson), a vessel of icy ferocity hampered by a sister, West (Ana Ularu), that seems content to live out a tortured existence like an Ozite meth head. Despite her power, she’s resigned herself to the Wizard’s outlawing of magic even though Glinda is scheming something big.

EMERALD CITY -- "The Beast Forever" Episode 101-- Pictured: Florence Kasumba as Wicked Witch of the East -- (Photo by: Rico Torres/NBC)

The show’s design borrows from a wide array of cultures, including Norse imagery in the woods, Turkish coffee pots in the villages, and an approximation of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” inside the Wizard’s throne room. Its hard-wrought exteriors give it the grand scale of a saga, and Singh pops his head in every so often with the stage-manicured flashes he’s known for. Vibrant and sumptuous, you imagine him moving grains of sand with tweezers to get it just right.

The show sometimes stumbles into fits of laughably florid dialogue–you may have guessed as much from episode titles like “The Beast Forever” and “Prison of the Abject”–but the more serious crime is that it’s mostly flavor without protein through the first few episodes. Dorothy wants to get home, but no one else’s motivations are clear. Even the Wizard and the Witches are locked in the vaguest of power struggles in a fantasy realm where the rules aren’t well defined for tourists. Early on, the show seems content to explain old wounds rather than to crank the gears into motion for creating new ones. It isn’t a large problem, though, because the world is gorgeously distracting and Dorothy’s march to the capitol adds enough adrenaline.

The heart of Emerald City beats with cruelty. Class subjugation, blunt violence and gaslighting imprisonment. Life in this version of Oz is nasty, brutish, and long. It’s also a beautifully and darkly altered place we’ve visited before, filled with alluring old friends in new costumes. If the rule for gritty re-imaginings is whining skepticism, this may be the exception.

4 out of 5 head-changing burritos

4 burritos

Images: NBC

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