Television reimaginings of classic tales have made for some wonderfully engaging entertainment (going back to Syfy efforts Tin Man and Alice, which were surprisingly fun) but Emerald City moves to a new level as Tarsem Singh returns to the form he hasn’t quite managed since The Fall.
The warning that should come on the tin is that audiences shouldn’t go into this expecting anything like a “retelling” of The Wizard of Oz. It would be nearly impossible to give a clear idea of what’s happened to L. Frank Baum’s works here, but it isn’t just modernized, but dipped in the grime of reality, and subjected to an absolutely unfettered imagination. It covers elements of the first three books (and perhaps beyond… it’s been a while), but is “inspired by” in the broadest sense. Some characters in this effort are an amalgamation of two characters in the books, but aren’t exactly either of them, and while there are a lot of familiar elements, little shows up in the way you expect.
Dorothy (Adria Arjona) rides a twister to Oz, has a run-in with a witch, and ultimately sets off to see the Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio), but it’s hard to recognize the story. Those who have never read past the first book will quickly get lost to new material, and this isn’t a telling that will spend a lot of effort trying to bring things back together.
That said, this is the most engaging thing to hit television since the first series of Fargo, and that wouldn’t be possible here without mixing things up. It isn’t just the curiosity of throwing crazy twists into a story everyone knows. There is a specific magic this story is aiming for, and while it doesn’t always nail the attempt, it’s the sort of endeavor that pulls you in just for the appreciation of trying to do something so complex.
Emerald City feels like an attempt to construct the reality upon which an ancient yarn might be based, peeling away the simplicity and moral precision varnished over the facts by generations of retellings. Here, nothing is simple and no one is exactly good (everyone is rather bad actually). Certain episodes recount things that might amount to the backstory of the elements we know and love, despite taking place during events that come after what we think we know about Dorothy’s first trip, and other bits never quite make it to the parts we’ve been told. This is story and mythos at its finest as the question becomes not whether or not the Tin Man gets a heart (or whatever), but whether we can see how the legend we know was born and bastardized out of this adventure.
Like Singh’s The Fall, Emerald City gathers much of its power from the clash between the clever, complex story and the visceral charge of the story’s undercurrents and visuals. Adding to the show’s ability to twist things, Emerald City abandons much of the original’s subtext and themes in favor of several overarching efforts at analyzing the human condition, not least that we are mostly a product of the circumstances thrust upon us, and the cage of our own thoughts.
Singh’s vision manages much of what sells the wonder here, but as you might imagine from Mirror Mirror, it’s the writing that gives the cast the opportunity to grab you. Notably, D’Onofrio, Oliver Jackson-Cohen (as Dorothy’s main companion, Lucas), and Ana Ularu (West) will nearly have you cheering as you love to love and love to hate them. Indeed, D’Onofrio may be uniquely suited to the role, as no actor leaps to mind who is better at offering facade and flawed characters.
Most importantly, Emerald City creates the kind of fairy tale that exists in the same realm as our favorites. Stories that are wondrous and worth repeating, but also spur our own imagination and ethical ponderings.
There are few shows around right now that can make a case for being more worthy of another chapter.