'Emerald City' takes a dark but ponderous journey down the yellow brick road

“Game of Thrones” consistently ranks as one of TV’s most pirated shows.  If “Emerald City,” premiering Friday on NBC, is any indication, it’s also become one of the most widely imitated.  

Though it is billed as a dark new take on “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which has inspired scores  of adaptations over the past century, the 10-episode miniseries probably owes more to George R.R. Martin — or for that matter, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — than L. Frank Baum. (And, if I’m being honest, some royalties may also be due to the “Outlander” team.)

Directed in its entirety by Tarsem Singh (“The Fall”), “Emerald City” is NBC’s second recent trip down the yellow brick road, after 2015’s “The Wiz Live!” But other than their shared origins, the two projects couldn’t be more different. Whereas “The Wiz” was a boisterous and engaging live musical, “Emerald City” is a turgid attempt at fantasy burdened by the weight of its own pretensions. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that there’s more to epic storytelling than goblets, horses and sorcery.   

The tale begins in rather over-complicated fashion in the tiny hamlet of Lucas, Kan., where 20-year-old Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) is a nurse who smuggles pain meds home to her adoptive family. She’s on her way to meet her biological mother (Gina Bellman) when she stumbles on a crime scene, a tornado strikes, and she’s swept off to Oz via an airborne police cruiser. (A German shepherd K9 becomes her Toto.)    

After accidentally killing the Wicked Witch of the East — excuse me, the Mistress of the Eastern Wood — Dorothy embarks on a journey toward Emerald City, ruled by the Wizard of Oz (a bearded Vincent D’Onofrio), a megalomaniacal creep fixated on  the weather.

Along the way, Dorothy encounters her version of Scarecrow, a hunky amnesiac she names Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), near-death on a roadside crucifix — one of the many loaded symbols Singh deploys to minimal effect in “Emerald City.”   She also puts her medical knowledge to use, arousing suspicion from the inhabitants of Oz.   

For the first hour or so, viewers may be able sustain their interest by playing a game of “I Spy” with “Wizard of Oz” iconography.  Dorothy’s ruby slippers have become a pair of gold and ruby gloves. The flying monkeys are now drones resembling steampunk chimps. The yellow brick road is a path dusted with intoxicating yellow opium.

There’s a certain cleverness to some of these updates, but at some point the series  (whose showrunners David Schulner and Shaun Cassidy were brought on board after the departure of original writer-producers Matt Arnold and Josh Friedman) drowns in this sea of allusions. The plot is at once frustratingly vague and overly elaborate, bogged down by hokey, imprecise mythology.   

Apparently a man of science, the Wizard has outlawed magic, putting him at odds with the two surviving cardinal witches: Glinda, who runs an orphanage but may not be as good-hearted as you would expect (Joely Richardson), and her bad-girl sister West (Ana Ularu), who runs a brothel and dresses like Stevie Nicks circa 1978. 

The Wizard and his advisors view Dorothy’s arrival as a sign of the imminent return of the Beast Forever, a malevolent force that can apparently take shape as a fire, flood or storm and might be scarier if it weren’t so abstract. “Emerald City” never clearly establishes the conflicts and dangers within Oz, and as a result the narrative feels shapeless and convoluted.

As one would expect of Singh, the director behind R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video and films like “The Cell,” the series is often visually arresting, filled with meticulously composed tableaux and a palette of velvety red, yellow and teal.

But it’s also derivative. Shots overlooking Emerald City might as well be postcards from King’s Landing, and the show’s version of Munchkins are quasi-indigenous people who dress like wildlings who raided the “Braveheart” makeup department.  (Oh, and they’re even known as the “tribe of the freelands.”)

The producers of “Emerald City” say they were inspired by the political allegory in Baum’s original novels, but the attempts at contemporary relevance (surveillance drones, a character struggling with her gender identity, a clash between science and spirituality) are half-baked.

For a trippy twist on “The Wizard of Oz,” you’d be better off looking for “Dark Side of the Rainbow” online. “Emerald City” is a trip down the yellow brick road that never really goes anywhere.

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‘Emerald City’

Where: NBC

When: 9 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-14-SV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for sex and violence)

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

Tarsem Singh

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