(Caution: some spoilers about Emerald City ahead!)
Emerald City, NBC's modern update of The Wizard of Oz, has a lot working in its favor. We already know the basics of the story, as so many reboots bank on, which lets us dive in with diminished risk and piqued curiosity about how this interpretation will unfold. A strong, modern heroine guides the action. It's a gorgeous piece of work, stuffed with elaborate visual cake as well as stories that are fundamentally compelling and plausible. (Well, as plausible as can be, given the context.)
Of course, the fact that it was scrapped and restarted from scratch doesn't exactly telegraph confidence and, in watching, you couldn't be faulted for imagining the whole thing is the result of someone yelling in a meeting, "Give me ideas for Game of Thrones, but different, now!" Unlike Wicked or the network's own redo of The Wiz, the "Why - and why now?" isn't apparent from the outset, making Emerald City seem suspiciously like an exercise in indulgence.
Mawkishness creeps in often, and when one episode ends with Dorothy (Adria Arjona) whipping out a distinctly modern device in this medieval otherworld to share a moment with a love interest, it's enough to make you want to wish for a tornado to whisk you out of there for good, too. But Emerald City is likable - lovable, even - in certain parts. Here's some of what you'll dig about the latest interpretation of Frank Baum's tale.
1. The diversity
Dorothy is Hispanic, speaking Spanish when we meet her; East Witch, while taken out entirely too early given the delicious evilness Florence Kasumba gives her, is black, and given importance via the intense campaign for retribution by her sister, West Witch (Ana Ularu). More people of color are sprinkled throughout the series, with Tip (Jordan Loughran), who we'll get to later, being the most prominent. What's commendable here is that the inclusion doesn't feel like boilerplate casting just to check off a list, but rather casting that rounds out the promise of an imaginary world full of all types of people. After all, if you can have munchkins, flying monkeys and a talking lion in a story, certainly you can have some generals, heroes and villains who aren't white, right?
2. Dorothy is a gun-wielding badass
The Dorothy most of us associate with this story is a gingham-clad, Ivory soap pure personification of fragility. She's by and large passive in our collective consciousness - a woman whose story unfolds less by her own volition but rather, choices made for her. Not this Dorothy. She's still compassionate and nurturing, but she's engaged in her own choices and more than willing to fight - as in actual hand-to-hand combat - to further her agenda. She's packing heat too, making her more Lara Croft than Judy Garland.
3. Costumes, scenery and lavish imagery
This series is nothing short of stupefyingly beautiful, from the expansive atmospheric landscape shots to the lush and romantic interiors inside the castle in the land of Ev. Tin Man's story becomes a justification for heavy and really cool steampunk imagery (a nod, perhaps to the 2007 Syfy series Tin Man) and Glinda's (Joely Richardson) perfectly straight, uber-blond coif and quietly elaborate white ensembles give her a vibe that's like a super icy Gwyneth Paltrow. Indeed, the costumes are out-of-this-world good thanks to the work of costume designer Trisha Biggar, who worked on several Star Wars films. Particularly astonishing are the masks worn by the Lady Ev (Stefanie Martini): each of them are exquisite works of art that look like they belong in museums - or perhaps on the runway show of a celebrated fashion designer.
4. How we meet Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Lion
The challenge in bringing these creatures to life was to push past the cartoonish depiction we remember and turn them into actual people who were somehow transformed. For the most part, it works. The man you'll recognize as Scarecrow has a quest for a brain that's now a more nuanced and subtle exploration of PTSD and memory loss; the "Tin Man" begins as a full, able-bodied human. They're about as sophisticated representations of them as you could ask for, especially since they're never referred to by those monikers but by adult real-world names.
5. Tip, the boy who becomes a girl
Unless you really know your Wizard of Oz, you likely haven't heard of Tip (Jordan Loughran), the orphan boy from Frank Baum's second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, which was published in 1904. Yet Tip isn't quite what he seems: he is in fact a girl deep down, and is transformed into (or rather, revealed to be) the woman she's supposed to be over time. Emerald City's subtle and simple telling of Tip's story is both true to the source material and uncannily timely given the collective awakening about gender identity happening in our culture now. Tip is seen struggling with her identity and encountering people who choose it for her, prompting poignant lines from her such as, "Everyone keeps telling me who and what I am, when do I get to decide?" All this gets settled comfortably in the end though: in the books, Tip is actually revealed to be the long-lost daughter of the late King of Oz and is returned to her rightful role as Queen.
6. The battle between Magic vs Science; moral ambiguity
No comic or fairy tale adaptation today is complete without some high-level discourse on moral shades of gray, shifting allegiances and uncertainty about what's really right and wrong. Game of Thrones this ain't, but Emerald City does construct a fairly cohesive web of stories with overlapping, contrasting motives for characters to get tangled in. Without giving too much away, it's no secret that the Wizard is completely powerless, giving him incentive to suppress magic at all costs. You also have probably heard the very reputable, and accurate theories that Glinda (the good witch) is actually the villain in the story. She is, after all, the one who gives Dorothy shoes she has no authority to give away, and sends the girl into a dangerous confrontation with the Wizard and the witch of the West knowing full well that Dorothy had the ability to go home the entire time. Her raven-haired sister - played with perfect rock-star swagger by Ana Ularu - is a lady of ill repute and she runs a brothel but, suffice it to say, she earns your loyalty. There are much more double crosses and surprises to come but, like our heroine, you'll have to stay the course to get to the good stuff.
Emerald City debuts Friday, Jan. 6 at 9/8 c on NBC.