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NBC’s ‘Emerald City’ gives Dorothy a gun and sends her off to a very different Oz

‘Emereald City’
A shot from the new “Wizard of Oz” update “Emerald City.”
(NBC)

A vast and mysterious land with magic spells, valiant swordsmen, contested rulers and epic tribal battles.

Westeros?

Nope. It’s “The Wizard of Oz.”

‎NBC unveiled its long-gestating limited series “Emerald City” at New York Comic-Con on Saturday, showing half of the two-hour special set to debut Jan. 6. The show sports a decidedly current, “Games of Throne-ish” vibe. As the action sweeps across epic vistas in a land before time, it offers up incantations, scheming and deadly serious quests — all while riffing on mainstay L. Frank Baum elements.

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“The challenge for all of us here is to find a new way of telling an old story and reinvent that story in a way that felt contemporary,” executive producer Shaun Cassidy said at a panel after the screening.‎

In this version, ‎Dorothy (Adria Arjona‎) ends up in Oz‎ after crashing her police car during a stormy night in Kansas. She has killed a witch, but rather than colorful rejoicing Munchkins, she is greeted by a somber Native American-style tribe that reasons which soon become clear, is displeased with her unwitting act. They exile her from their land, though not before naming her German shepherd Toto — dog in Munchkinese, natch‎.

Banished, Dorothy sets out to find the wizard whom she’s of course been told can get her home (some things don’t change). Meanwhile, in the heart of the Emerald City, its ruler, the Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio), is tightening his grip on power, providing a political current most don’t associate with the Baum books.

D’Onofrio plays the Wizard as a kind of insecure demagogue‎, saying he was interested in the character’s psychological dimensions. “It’s making the whole behind-the-curtain thing a metaphor for someone who doesn’t like who he is,” he said.

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Another departure from the original tale is the witches, who hold court in front of large harems, plotting against perceived enemies. There’s also a Red Woman — or,  at least, a woman in red — a witch that threatens Dorothy early on.‎

All the characters are here to fight a mystical threat called Beast Forever that has been raining havoc on the people of Oz. 

Oh, and did we mention Dorothy has a gun? She deploys it to clever advantage with the more techno-agnostic people she walks among. 

When the touchstones from the classic tale are included, they can take on pretty different forms in “Emerald City.” On her journey, Dorothy meets ‎the Scarecrow (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a brooding swordsman who is barely breathing after being rather baroquely crucified‎. She names him Lucas, after her hometown.

The show is following the template of NBC chief Robert Greenblatt’s pay-cable background, airing just 10 episodes as it seeks to find not just the genre voice but also the cultural relevance of shows like “Game of Thrones.” 

In another cable touch, all 10 episodes are directed by Tarsem Singh. The‎ commercial and film director (“The Fall”) known for his vast sweep and exacting visuals said he didn’t know much about “The Wizard of Oz” coming in — which could work to his benefit.

“It would have scared me if I knew the source material that well,” Singh said at the panel, adding ‎that if producers wanted to “mix it up,” then “an Indian guy telling an iconic white story — it will be mixed up.”

He added that he didn’t want to abandon ship after the first episode‎ — “it would be like someone comes in and sleeps with your wife‎.”

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Singh and the writers have managed to work in other modern flourishes. Not least is Arjona as a Latina Dorothy “I remember thinking, ‘I’m Hispanic. I’m never going to get this‎,’ ” said the Guatemalan-Puerto Rican actress, known for her role on “True Detective.”

There are also trans characters, which executive producer David Schulner noted “came right from the books,” a reference to the recurring Princess Ozma of Baum’s tomes.

“You’re going to bring connections to this world,” Schulner said. “The things we care about reflected on-screen.”

Cassidy added that much of the action centers on a “war between science and magic.”

“It’s allegorical to a lot of what’s going on right now,” he added.

The Oz revival has been going strong for years, from the successful (“Wicked” and NBC’s “The Wiz Live!”) to the less successful (“Oz the Great and Powerful”). Combining its mythology, already so rich, with the modern fantasy genre poses a risk. There may not be enough room for both — or NBC could soon have its own “Thrones”-like talker.

steven.zeitchik@latimes.com

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On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


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