As you can probably tell from its title, NBC’s new drama series Emerald City uses elements of L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as its launching point into telling the fantastical story of a young woman’s journey into a mysterious world. Given the number of Oz retellings that there have been over the decades, you might be wondering if another adaptation is worth taking the trip over the rainbow. But in its lush and colorful presentation, its gritty realism even as it creates another world, and its development of character archetypes we thought we had already known pretty well from previous incarnations, Emerald City succeeds quite well.
It also offers a bit more darkness, sex and scary moments than other adaptations have had, and so we are definitely not in Kansas anymore in terms of certain themes. While the flying monkeys of the classic 1939 film have certainly traumatized generations of children, there is some more overt and scary violence in this tale that will have parents keeping youngsters away from watching it entirely.
Much credit for this unique approach goes to Tarsem Singh (who goes professionally by simply Tarsem), whose direction brings to life the world of Oz that Kansas nurse Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) is suddenly swept into one stormy night. Tarsem’s visual touches here won’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with his previous film work, most notably the dreamlike 2000 thriller The Cell. One of Tarsem’s stars in that film, Vincent D’Onofrio, reunites with the director in Emerald City, and D’Onofrio told us that Tarsem’s involvement was a prime reason for his taking the role of the Wizard in the new series.
“I really trust [Tarsem] as a filmmaker,” D’Onofrio said. “He’s very good at the visuals and the aesthetics.”
It’s one thing to reimagine a fantasy classic like Oz in terms of location, art direction and visual effects. But when it comes to offering new takes on familiar characters, especially the phony “man behind the curtain” who is the Wizard of Oz, we wondered if D’Onofrio found that to be a challenge.
“These days you have to go deeper if you are going to show a character that was really a fraud,” D’Onofrio said. “You’d have to go to a more emotional level. … I think they got very imaginative with the characters.”
D’Onofrio’s Wizard is the leader of Emerald City who has outlawed magic and caused friction with a group of witches, including Glinda (Joely Richardson) and West (Ana Ularu). He claims to be working in the best interests of the people, but, according to D’Onofrio, “I think he’s just one of the most pathetic human beings you could possibly imagine. I think that he completely suffers from worthlessness. He has to learn how to become a whole person. I don’t think he cares about anybody more than he cares about himself.”
Perhaps the Wizard will come to some self-awareness over the course of the 10 hours that make up Emerald City (it debuts with a two-hour premiere). As to whether there will be more to come, D’Onofrio thinks that it could go on.
“There are characters that go through extreme transitions in these 10 hours,” he said. “Those transitions, they evolve these characters into having new lives, in a way. Those lives continue. There’s plenty of meat there, plenty of story there to keep telling.”
Sounds like there could be plenty of opportunities to explore deeper themes than simply “There’s no place like home.”
Emerald City > NBC > Fridays beginning Jan. 6