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‘Emerald City’ review: Grim series doesn’t compare to book, film

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NBC's "Emerald City" offers a fresh take at the classic "The Wizard of Oz." Credit: NBC

THE SHOW “Emerald City”

WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Friday on NBC/4


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) is 20 and a doctor in tiny Lucas, Kansas (population 393), who is intent on finding her birth mother — before fate and a tornado intervene. She is swept away to a magical kingdom — you know the one — which is dominated by a large, hirsute ruler (Vincent D’Onofrio) who has outlawed magic (mostly because he has no magical powers himself). Dorothy is told to go to him if she has any hope of getting back to Kansas, and en route to the Emerald City meets up with Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). They decide to find this wizard together.

MY SAY With “Emerald City,” we’re not in Kansas anymore, and we’re not in Oz, either. We are, however, in another TV series or movie. The checklist is a long one. There’s a bit of Westeros re-imagined here, and some Middle Earth, too. The statue of Taweret from “Lost” looks like an inspiration in one place. The famed “Dead Marshes” from “The Lord of the Rings” where Sam and Frodo got lost is as well. Witches — good, bad or indeterminate — also abound in and around the Emerald City, so possibly a whole bunch of other series (from “Buffy” to “Supernatural”) went into the caldron, too. Like the rest of us, the producers know their pop culture. What they don’t know is their “Wizard of Oz.”

That’s undoubtedly intentional, also instantly regrettable. “Emerald City” is a gestalt of a series as opposed to an adaptation of a beloved book series and iconic movie. Many images and ideas abound, some alluring, none particularly coherent. There’s a troubled history to this short-run series. You begin to see why.

Back in 2014, when this was conceived, original showrunner Josh Friedman (producer of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) presumably saw “Emerald City” as an opportunity to build out a brand-new world rather than re-imagine one, or reboot the un-rebootable. With the 75th anniversary of the movie approaching, NBC wanted its Oz, but also some pivots to monster hits like “Game of Thrones.” Because NBC paid the bills, producer and network parted ways, and “City” was canceled.

Then last year, something Oz-like (which is to say improbable) happened: NBC changed its mind. New showrunners were brought in (including Shaun Cassidy and Matthew Arnold), an international cast assembled and an exotic foreign locale chosen (much of the series was shot in Hungary). A sense of renewed energy remains with the reborn “City,” but so does that old ambivalence, as stated: Oz . . . or not Oz?

Friday’s launch does establish the archetypal Oz road story, as Dorothy and Lucas set out on a yellow road (not made of bricks, by the way) in search of the great and powerful wizard. Instead of a curtain, he hides behind a huge beard and spouts mumbo jumbo about a “beast that takes many forms — made of fire that water cannot extinguish, of monstrosities that slither and soar.” Naturally, only he can stop this beast.

Vincent D’Onofrio is almost always an engaging, interesting actor. His wizard however may prove the exception. As a con man, this wizard isn’t relishing his elaborate card trick as much as enduring it. Perhaps heavy is the head that wears the crown, except he doesn’t even wear a crown. Instead, he wears a tangled nest of a wig that makes him look like “Harry Potter’s” Hagrid.

Likewise, the land of Oz is dark, grim and menacing, without much in the way of magic and occupied by tribes of giant ewoks who deploy waterboarding on their unfortunate adversaries and even poor Dorothy. She can’t get out fast enough, and neither could I.

BOTTOM LINE A grim grind of a trip down that emblematic yellow road.


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