“Emerald City” has been in the pilot pipeline for so long, it seemed NBC would sooner cut its losses and can it forever than keep trying to make it work. But producers David Schulner and Shaun Cassidy refused to give up on the timelessly powerful Land of Oz book series by L. Frank Baum — and when the inimitable Tarsem Singh agreed to come aboard as director, the series’ fate was changed. Schulner replaced Friedman as showrunner, and over two years later, this series is finally slated to premiere.
With so many complications, delays and rewrites, chances were slim that this series could possibly turn out to be any good. We had little faith this seemingly cursed production would be worth all the trouble. But after viewing the first two episodes, which premiere back to back on Friday, Jan. 16, all those worries instantly dissipated. “Emerald City” is a tour de force of re-imagined storytelling with surprising modern day twists. It’s entertaining for viewers who were not prior fans of “The Wizard of Oz” — and for the Yellow Brick Road-obsessed among us? Keep an eye out for those Easter eggs. Singh cleverly leaves them over the place.
Singh, who producers refer to as “the last maverick,” creates a fantastical world that is equally both beautiful and haunting. Showcasing magic, extreme violence and strong sexuality, it’s immediately clear why the show is being compared to “Game of Thrones” — and a little hard to believe a broadcast net like NBC approved such scenes. But there is one huge difference between the two shows, and it’s huge part of what makes “Emerald City” so great.
“It is one hundred percent less rapey,” says Schulner of being compared to the hit HBO drama. “Baum’s mom was one of the very first suffragettes. [His] books are infused with feminism and the anti-patriarical. In the second book, an army of young women march on Emerald City because they are tired of being ruled by men. And this was in 1904-1905. These books are about if anything, female empowerment. So, it didn’t even enter to the equation. It’s not part of our DNA.”
Cassidy readily warns that “Dorothy gets beaten up pretty good…” but Schulner quickly adds, “But there’s a strength and outlook in Oz that is completely antithetical of that. [Oz] is a matriarchal society of witches who ran Oz for thousands of years, until the Wizard came in.” Cassidy then nodded his head in agreement. “Every female character has an incredibly strong arc.”
Actor Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays the all-powerful Wizard of Oz says, “Every character that mine is extremely afraid of… Is a woman.” And once audiences meet the ladies of Oz, everyone will understand that sentiment: Actress Florence Kasumba is strikingly powerful as the Witch of the East, while the beautiful Glinda gets a fresh icy makeover with Joely Richardson, and Ana Ularu steals every scene as the Witch of the West. The series is full of Khaleesi top to bottom, and it’s wonderful.
Filling the iconic role of Dorothy Gale is Adria Arjona, who conveys a perfect mixture of toughness and vulnerability throughout the pilot. “I come in and challenge everything,” Arjona told us, admitting she never even considered replicating Judy Garland’s portrayal from the now infamous musical film.
“The last time I watched was about four years ago,” Arjona says. “And I just didn’t want to touch it again. I loved it so much. And I loved Garland’s performance so much, but I wanted to do what I had in front of me justice. I found it more exciting to discover it on my own. This Dorothy is so different.”
Dorothy serves as the our eyes into this new fantastical world, but that’s pretty much where the comparisons end. Arjona’s Dorothy is bilingual, she doesn’t sing, she’s a 20-year-old sexually active nurse in Lucas, Kansas… And she’s not the only character to get an update modern makeover. Without giving away anything, we’ll just say the most magical part of the premiere is the clever way we meet the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow.
So, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore — but we’re not in 1939, either. It’s 2017, and Baum’s iconic stories are eerily still relevant. While Schulner cracked “We didn’t know the wizard would be such a showboat” until D’Onofrio came on board, Cassidy jokes, “A folically challenged demigod rising to power is completely fantasy.” And this is just one similarity between the sci-fi drama, which was filmed way before the presidential election, and modern day real life.
“It’s sad,” Schulner — since the stories were written over a hundred years ago — “…But exciting. We get to explore the psychological complexity that Baum didn’t do for his own reasons, mainly that the series was made for kids” — and this modern update is definitely not for the youngins’. But it’s not too dour, either. There’s enough magical fun embedded throughout that keeps the series lively, sublimely awakening the child-like wonder lurking inside of every adult.
“Emerald City” premieres on Friday, Jan. 6 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.