Review: Emerald City 1×1-1×2 (US: NBC; UK: 5*)

The Wizard of Oz meets Game of Thrones in Barcelona

In the US: Fridays, 9/8c, NBC
In the UK: Acquired by 5*. Will air early 2017

Certain classics are sacrosanct. Everyone’s agreed that whatever happens, you shouldn’t remake them, reimagine them or whatever, since they will never be as good and might insult the memory of the original.

The Wizard of Oz isn’t one of those things, it seems. Long is the list of reimaginings, it being a reimagining anyway of Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, several silent movies and a Broadway musical. At the theatre, it spawned the reimagined Wicked, one of the most popular musicals of all time. At the movies, we’ve had cartoons (Journey Back to Oz, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return), a sequel (Return to Oz) and remakes (The WizOz The Great and Powerful, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz).

On TV, dark, gritty, sci-fi reimaginings have been the order of business – once they’ve actually got off the ground. Tim Burton gave a pilot of one a go, back in 1999, but that never even got filmed. Lost in Oz, an action show sequel in the vein of Buffy and Smallville that starred Melissa George (Dorothy replacement) and Mia Sara (new Wicked Witch), managed to get as far as a pilot in 2002, but proved too expensive for a series:

Sara would still return as a witch in the later mini-series, The Witches of Oz, in which noted author Dorothy Gale discovers that her books are actually based on repressed memories of her time in the land of Oz:

But before that Zooey Deschanel, Neal McDonough, Alan Cumming and Raoul Trujillo – aka DG, Cain The Tin Man, Glitch and Raw – entered the Outer Zone (OZ) to find the Mystic Man (Richard Dreyfuss) in inept Syfy Channel mini-series Tin Man

Now we have possibly the most interesting and successful attempt to ‘reimagine’ The Wizard of Oz in the shape of NBC’s 10-episode limited series Emerald City. As with previous TV shows, it had false starts: originally given the green light back in 2014, it got shut down when NBC and showrunner Josh Friedman had a bit of a spat. A year later, NBC changed its mind again, gave David Schulner the showrunner post and now, three years after that first go-ahead, here it is at last.

It sees young adopted Kansas nurse Adria Arjona (Person of Interest, True Detective) caught up in a tornado and conveyed to a strange new land, filled with witches both good (Joely Richardson) and bad (Florence Kasumba), as well as a mighty Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) who protects the land from the Great Beast Beyond. Will the wizard help her to return to Kansas or does he have a very different agenda on his mind, given all the power struggles going on in Oz?

It’s The Wizard of Oz meets Game of Thrones, but most importantly of all, all 10 episodes are directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell) and he’s been to Barcelona. No, that’s not a euphemism, oh friend of Dorothy.

Swept up into the eye of a tornado, 20-year-old Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) is transported to another world – a mystical land where an all-powerful ruler (Vincent D’Onofrio) governs over one kingdom, has outlawed magic, and faces not only the wrath of a growing cauldron of witches but a looming disaster brought on by a mythical force. Epic, romantic and fantastical, “Emerald City” is an empowering tale of a young woman finding her true strength and identity even as she battles to bring a divided world together.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Ana Ularu, Mido Hamada, Jordan Loughran, Gerran Howell and Joely Richardson also star. David Schulner, Shaun Cassidy, Josh Friedman and Matthew Arnold serve as executive producers. The series is directed by Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, who also serves as an executive producer. “Emerald City” is a Universal Television production

Is it any good?
Visually, it’s brilliant, it’s got a (largely) cracking cast, and the new land and peoples of Oz have been built up in imaginative ways. It’s just a shame that the dialogue, characters and the whole people side of things falls apart.

The story naturally revolves around Arjona and follows pretty much the same plot as the book and the movie: a tornado takes Dorothy from Kansas to Oz, where she accidentally lands on a witch; she then has to head off along the Yellow Brick Road with Toto to the Emerald City to meet the powerful Wizard of Oz, accompanied by a dog and a man whose mind is not quite all there (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). 

But there’s a lot of leeway in that and the show is also quickly world-building. Toto isn’t Dorothy’s dog and is just along for the ride. The Yellow Brick Road is yellow but isn’t made from brick – that’s poppy seed. The silver slippers of the book which became ruby slippers in the movie to show off the new colour film processes are now gnarly ruby gloves. The three witches can all do magic and there’s all manner of ceremonies and rules to the magic, but there are other lesser witches. There are flying monkeys, but they’re UAVs created by the Wizard of Oz. 

All of which you’ve seen before and you can probably play fantasy show bingo along with Emerald City as the standard tropes show up (“Good witches, prim, evil witches sexy? Check. Fake language that everyone speaks only four lines of before lapsing into English? House!”). There are also the standard interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – a book Baum notably prefaced with the firm instruction not to try to read any sub-text into it because there isn’t one, he said – with Dorothy pining for something else that’s lacking in her life and wanting a real relationship with her mum (who might be Coupling/Leverage‘s Gina Bellman). Nevertheless, it’s all quite well done and impressed me more than the world-building in dedicated Syfy shows like Defiance.

Where Emerald City really works is in its look. The show is largely shot in Europe, particularly Spain, and director Tarsem Singh not only was able to shoot in the fabulous Park Güell but also build designs based on Gaudí’s, with the Wizard of Oz’s personal guard for example wearing armour in the style of Casa Milà’s ‘witch scarers’:

Witch scarers of Barcelona

There are huge visual treats throughout, some of which come from other European sources, such as Norse myths of Yggdrasill, for example, but others simply off his own bat.

Being filmed in Europe, Emerald City also is able to get a strong European supporting cast, with the Richardson et al joined by Ófærð (Trapped)‘s Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Fiona Shaw, for example, as well as a host of Brits in smaller parts. D’Onofrio, one of the few Americans of the piece, actually does a marvellous job of sounding like a 1940s American as per the movie, in the same way as Daniel Day Lewis did in There Will Be Blood

Emerald City‘s biggest problem is that people tend to get lost in all of this. None of the characters endear or make you want to care for them. Dorothy’s annoying and is the standard US nurse character, who thinks being a nurse isn’t as good as being a doctor. She’s also miserable to her adopted parents and hung up on her missing mum. She and the faux scarecrow try to bond over knock-knock jokes. The witches are either prostitutes or put out when one of their number becomes pregnant. It’s all very ordinary, tedious and badly written.

Emerald City is worth watching, even if it’s with the sound down, simply to see what Singh has to offer visually. With the sound up, it is at least better than Tin Man et al, but it really needs a little more magic in the script department. 


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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