A demagogue declares he is the only one who can keep his people safe. He organizes witch hunts to expose his enemies. Those who protest are imprisoned or killed.
No, this isn’t Washington, D.C., in six months. This is, surprisingly, “Emerald City,” NBC’s lavish, if emotionally disconnected, reinterpretation of “The Wizard of Oz,” a 10-hour fever dream of betrayal, romance and brutal violence that Judy Garland might have a hard time recognizing.
Directed by Tarsem Singh (“The Cell,” “The Fall,” “Mirror Mirror”), the show is an obvious grab for the “Game of Thrones” crowd (there’s even “milk of the poppy”), with elaborate sets and costuming and Singh’s strong visual sense driving the proceedings. It’s a bizarre-if-calculated mix of steam punk imagery and medieval fantasy built around a showdown between the scientific and the magical.
There’s still a Dorothy (Adria Arjona), but this time around she’s a 20-year-old nurse who gets swept up from a crime scene and arrives in the land of Oz with a police dog (eventually named Toto) and, gulp, a gun.
The Munchkins? They’re a bunch of primitive painted warriors. The Good Witch (Joely Richardson)? She’s maybe not so good. The Witch of the West (Ana Ularu, the show’s breakout star) runs a whore house and while she’s probably not so good either, she knows how to have fun. And the Yellow Brick Road is yellow because it’s covered in opium pollen.
And so it goes. Is there a transgender character? Of course there is, it’s 2017. A miniature Frankenstein type? You bet! And the wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a big bag of insecurity-driven pomposity who lies big league. Please, nobody give him a twitter account.
Even though Oz is nowhere near England, most everybody here speaks English, usually with the same British accents that are so common on “Thrones.” Dorothy is, of course, on a quest to find her way back to Kansas, but things keep coming up — a love interest (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a child witch (Rebekah Rea) who turns people to stone, things like that.
It all looks good, but Arjona never gains real traction as Dorothy and some of the side stories become distractions. Still, “Emerald City” is an ambitious, if derivative, project for broadcast television. Parents beware: This is not a show for small children. It’s a big shiny bauble of violent fantasy in a time when it’s hard to tell if fantasy is a necessary distraction or part of the problem.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic