‘Emerald City’ Crosses ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ With ‘Game Of Thrones,’ For Some Reason

Okay, the good first. Emerald City, NBC’s new event series based on The Wizard of Oz (the movie and the original series of books), is beautiful. Just visually stunning. Director and executive producer Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall, Immortals) does things with color and big sweeping landscapes that pop off the screen. It all looks fabulously expensive and if it was it was worth it, because there are at least three or four moments in each episode where you’ll be tempted to pause and just look at the still frame. The image I used at the top of this post, which is of Florence Kasumba as the Wicked Witch of the East, is one of them. You should see those red ribbons flow in the wind, too. It’s pure eye candy, and you could probably watch the show on mute and enjoy a fair amount of it, if we’re being honest.

Unfortunately, this brings us to the less good. Emerald City is a much better art exhibit than it is a television show. It’s… kind of a lot. And kind of messy. There are monkey robot drones. But let’s back up.

A few years ago, right around the 75th anniversary of the movie, there was a flood of Wizard of Oz-y television projects entering the development stage. CBS had a medical drama cooking that was supposed to be “inspired by the characters and themes.” The CW was working up one set in the future that sounded an awful lot like The Matrix. Syfy floated one in which Dorothy was a male warrior who was armed to the gills and hellbent on revenge, because this was 2013 and Sharknado had just happened and… I don’t know, really. It was a weird time.

The biggest theme of these projects, however, was grittiness. Everything was gritty. “A gritty reimagining,” “a gritty take on an old classic,” and so on and so forth. At least two of the projects came right out and used Game of Thrones in their summaries, because again, 2013. “What if Dorothy had blond hair and the lion was a dragon?,” you can almost hear an executive saying, if you close your eyes and play the Game of Thrones theme and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the same time in open tabs on your computer. “And maybe Toto is a direwolf?”

Anyway, one of those many projects made it to air, over three years later. And that’s how we got Emerald City.

Here is what you need to know about the show: Adria Arjona plays Dorothy, a nurse who was raised by her grandparents. She goes to see her mother, but there’s a cop, and a tornado, and then the cop pulls his gun, and whooosh she is whisked off to Oz inside a stolen cop car and taken prisoner by an army that looks an awful lot like Dothraki warriors. The Yellow Brick Road is covered in opium dust. The Scarecrow is not so much “a scarecrow” as he is a mysterious and possibly dangerous hot dude with some straw stuck to his face. The Wizard spies on them with the aforementioned robot monkey drones, and he orders an underling to enhance the footage so he can get a better view. (ENHANCE!) I apologize for all the rapid-fire spoilers here but I don’t know how else to convey to you that these are all things that happen in the first 20 minutes of the show. I feel like you should know this going in.

Also, the Wizard is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who goes huge with the performance and looks like this. You should know that, too.

The problem is that while that all sounds busy and fun and a little nuts (in a good way), like Game of Thrones meets some sort of Shonda Rhymes show, the result is more of a slog. It feels like there’s somehow too much and too little going on, like everyone was so enamored of the “Wizard of Oz but gritty” thing that they just piled gritty-sounding things — Guns! Cops! Opiates! Murder! Torture! — on top of each other and then tried to string them together later. Parts of it work, some of them even work well (an opium-addicted Wicked Witch, for example, played by Ana Ularu, who seems to be having fun with it all), but there’s not quite enough there to make it work as a whole.

It’s a shame, too. The original story, based on the books by L. Frank Baum, is a good one, and one that is already familiar to most viewers. There’s plenty to build on there, if you’re set on building upon it. But the tricky part with a beloved classic like this is that the degree of difficulty is so much higher than it is for making something original. While “What if the Wizard of Oz but also current hit drama with massive fan base?” might be enough to get a project made, you’ll need a lot more than that to stretch it to 10 hours, in no small part because you’ve invited all those expectations. And while Emerald City does add a few things to that formula, and puts in all in very pretty packaging, it just doesn’t clear that bar.

Shout out to the robot monkey drones, though.

Emerald City premieres on NBC at 9 P.M.on January 6