(Caution: Some spoilers about Emerald City ahead)
Tornado in Kansas, ruby slippers, yellow brick road, green witch who melts: most of us know The Wizard of Oz. Or so we think. The iconic film is just one take on the 14 books Frank Baum wrote — books that were much more complex, adult and filled with political allegory and social commentary than the Technicolor movie we remember. That complex jumping-off point is the basis for NBC's Emerald City, a grownup take on the story that's (not inaccurately) being called a darker interpretation and "The Wizard of Oz meets Game of Thrones." Premiering Friday, Emerald City is an over-the-top, often eye-popping spectacle that keeps steady with the basic story while giving it modern updates and imaginative, playful turns. It's addictive - if only to see how the plot points you remember play out in the 21st century re-telling - and full of cultural resonance that lets it join The Wiz and Wicked in becoming inspired interpretations of the ever-evolving story. Ready to be taken, ahem, by storm? Here's everything you need to know about Emerald City.
Getting it made was a feat of magic
The road to getting to see the yellow brick road was packed with more obstacles than Dorothy could've ever imagined. Way back in 2014, NBC was ready to put 10 episodes of the series on air in 2015. But after a dispute with its leaders Matthew Arnold (Siberia) and Josh Freidman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) things fell apart and the entire project was scrapped before it even went into production. NBC brought it back in 2015 though, bringing on a new team including executive producer Shaun Cassidy, showrunner David Schulner (Desperate Housewives) and Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) as director. Singh mandated he shoot all the episodes (as opposed to being split among multiple directors as most shows are) like a 10-hour movie and that all 10 episode scripts be done in advance. Even after that, scripts were re-written as actors and locations were chosen. With so much invested, there may be many fingers crossed at NBC in hopes that this supernatural story could perhaps be its next Grimm, which is concluding this season.
It's breathtakingly beautiful
Calling Emerald City ambitious is a bit like calling a tornado a rain storm; Singh aimed to use as little CGI as possible to capture the "original magic" in part through the use of soaring, fanciful scenery. That meant shooting on locations that required going to half of Europe — including a remote national park in Croatia, 15th Century castles in Hungary and the Park Güell in Barcelona. It looks as grand and cinematic as it sounds. Singh is known for his elaborate, gorgeous visuals and Emerald City continues that reputation. Landscape shots make the series feel otherworldly; interior shots inside castles and temples sing with vibrancy and ruthless attention to detail.
All the main players - and their motives - are different than you remember
For starters, Dorothy (Adria Arjona) is Hispanic - and she's no sweet, canary-voiced lady; she's an ass kicker. Part of the fun in watching the series is meeting the new iterations of the characters you know, so I won't spoil it all here. But suffice it to say Toto isn't a harmless little lap dog; the Scarecrow is a rugged, handsome man left for dead without any recollection of who he is; and the Tin Man is fully human when we meet him. All these people are, in the beginning at least, mortals who become helped by and victim to the magic that rules Oz - magic that The Wizard (Vincent D'Onofrio ) is working to eradicate and thereby starting a war. Forget the old notion of everyone skipping merrily down the yellow brick road (which here is lined with saffron-colored opium poppy pollen, by the way): these people are out for revenge and they're willing to kill to get their way.
It's not for kids
Emerald City is about as close to an HBO epic saga as you've seen on network TV, with sensual sex scenes and occasionally gory violence. We're talking throats being slit, shootings (yes, there are guns in Oz - more on that later) and quite a bit of blood. That aside, Emerald City might be so adult - not in the boom chicka wow wow sense but in the difficult emotions and contrasting philosophical theories sense - that the action and motivations of the characters could be a snooze to youngsters.
Don't hold your breath for slippers
Cause they ain't there. (They weren't in the original story either by the way; the silver shoes Dorothy co-opts were changed to red in the film to better highlight the new color technology at the time.) Dorothy does get a fabulous pair of gloves from the witch she accidentally kills, though, and those give her powers.
Modern themes, including political commentary, are ever-apparent
Schulner, the producer, has noted how Baum's books bear the feminist influences of his mother - one of the first suffragettes. Baum's second book, in fact, has an army of women marching on Emerald City in protest of being ruled by men and you can certainly see a theme of female empowerment present in this adaptation. The centuries-old tug-of-war between science and religion couldn't be more overt; it's a commentary as loud as the suffering of the poor and working class while people in power play puppet master with their fates. Then there's Tip (Jordan Loughran), a character not very well known to casual Wizard of Oz fans, who'll come to play a big role and be a moving meditation on the complexities of gender identity and compassion for transgender individuals. Guns work their way into the story too, illustrating how they upset the natural order and cause untold destruction. And it's hard not to see the battle initiated by the portly Wizard as anything but the result of his own insecurities, fear and actual powerlessness - a damning and timely rebuke of, ahem, some modern-day leaders.
It ends with a big twist
By the middle of the 10 episodes, so much has happened you'll surely be wondering if the "wicked" witch will melt into a puddle, if her and her crew ever get what they wanted from the Wizard or if Dorothy ever makes it home. Very little of what you think you'll expect to see becomes relevant by the end of the first episodes although yes, Dorothy does land back in Kansas. Only when she does, she has unknowingly unearthed way more trouble than she ever could have imagined — and she'll be haunted by someone who presents a very compelling reason for her to go back.
Emerald City debuts Friday, Jan. 6 at 9/8 c on NBC.