In “Emerald City,” a dark reimagining of Dorothy’s journey, the land of Oz is more alien planet than technicolor fairytale. She still falls from the sky courtesy of a tornado but the witch of the east dies from her unfortunate curiosity over a gun rather than being smashed by a house and that’s after she survives death by car. Her sisters, of the north and west, use her burial rites to set in motion a return to power because the great and powerful wizard has outlawed magic. The little people are a fierce desert tribe and the scarecrow is a man who is left to die on a cross, covered in straw. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The wizard, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, has dismantled a female power structure, leaving the once powerful witches to serve his needs. The witch of the west (Ana Ularu) is a brothel owner lost to her vices while Glinda (Joely Richardson), outwardly accepting of her fate, secretly plots her revenge on the wizard. The witch of the south was killed by a mystical character called “the beast forever” who the wizard defeated with giant stone figures holding weapons. One towers above the witches’ sacred temple with a spear ready to destroy it, should the wizard bring him to life again.
It’s not uninteresting that the series has complicated good versus evil and focused on female empowerment in a new way. This is a grown up retelling. But neither the wizard nor the witches are immediately appealing as bad, good or somewhere in between. Their motivations are murky and the mythology is hard work. Intrigue can easily turn into confusion and disinterest when too many questions are given too few answers, as they are here. The first episode refers to past events and character histories tied to those events too cryptically to draw the viewer into the action.
Then we have Dorothy (Adria Arjona) who is a nurse but also more, someone with untapped power. Her journey is to discover her real self and bring a divided Oz together. Walking down a brick road covered with yellow poppy with the soldier/”scarecrow” (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who can’t remember anything, the pair encounter a woman who is holding a boy (Jordan Loughran) captive. The soldier, who she names Lucas, displays a surprising level of violence toward the woman. It’s a strange and unexpected scene. If the character without a brain is capable of such rage, all bets are off for the tin man without a heart. And didn’t he carry an axe?
“Emerald City” could be an interesting retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” if its odd, weaker elements don’t overshadow its potential. Visually, the series has some cinematic appeal including the witch of the east, in her flowing red robes, the wizard’s giant stone protectors and the writhing bodies incarcerated in a mud pool known as the prison of the abject. If the storyline keeps its more bizarre moments in check, it might reach the levels it aspires to.
“Emerald City” is on Fridays at 9 p.m. EDT on NBC.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.