On January 6th, NBC premieres its new adult fantasy Emerald City, based on L Frank Baum’s ‘Oz’ books. The series is produced by Shaun Cassidy, Matthew Arnold and Josh Friedman and written by David Schulner.
This is a much darker Oz than you’ve seen before, with grown up, complex characters that display both good and evil qualities.
Twenty-year-old Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) is a nurse living in Kansas, when she is swept up in a tornado and is transported to the mystical land of Oz. There she encounters an all-powerful Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio) who rules the kingdom. He has outlawed magic, and is facing a growing wrath by a cauldron of witches who used to govern the land.
NBC invited a group of journalists to The Grill restaurant on the Universal Studios lot to talk with producer Shaun Cassidy and writer David Schulner about their upcoming series.
Emerald City New York ComicCon Panel – Executive Producers David Schulner and Shaun Cassidy on Saturday, October 8, 2016 from the Javits Center in New York, NY ©2016 NBCUniversal, photo by Brad Barket

What was your first reaction when you were approached about doing an adult series that reimagined The Wizard of Oz?

Shaun: When I heard they were doing it I thought it was a terrible idea, because I thought they’d gone to that well so many times, not always successfully.

David and I still share an office building on the (Universal) lot, and Josh Freidman was there as well, and we were both friends with Josh. He would come into my office and want to talk about this reimagining of The Wizard of Oz he was working on.

The more I heard about it, the more intrigued I became by it. Both David and I became fans of the notion that you can reinvent this and make it a new and relevant thing.

David: It’s not the movie. The movie’s iconic, we’re doing the books.

Shaun: We’re taking a lot from the books, but we are also adding a lot to the party. It just felt like a really great toolbox presented a hundred years ago by L Frank Baum. Then (reimagined) by Josh and handed to David, who made it even more beautiful.

Then I was gifted with this incredible (project) to see it with clear eyes, maybe, and help shape it and produce it.

David: What helped me was using the characters and stories from the books, which I had never seen done; so for me there wasn’t a pressure to retell the movie, because that’s not what we were doing.

Emerald City, Season 1 – Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) ©2016 NBCUniversal, photo by Michael Muller

How many Oz books were you familiar with? Did you have to read all of them?

Shaun: Of course.

David: And some are better than others. Dorothy’s not even in the second book. But, I think, Baum got letters from young girls saying, ‘We miss Dorothy, can you please bring her back?’

These books couldn’t be more contemporary now.

Shaun: They were originally written as political allegory. (Baum) was a political guy and he wrote children’s books and poked at the bear.

A lot of very resonant themes in the story are 100 years old and are his. We didn’t have to go searching for a story about gender identity. Female empowerment is there.

David: The reason we made the characters older was that we wanted them to explore those complexities that Baum glances over, because the books are mainly for kids, in a realistic, psychologically complex way.

Emerald City, Episode 101 “The Beast Forever” – Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) and Lucas (Oliver Jackson) ©2016 NBCUniversal, photo by Rico Torres

The women in the series are very strong, why do you feel that was so important in Baum’s books?

David: Baum’s mom was one of the very first suffragettes – and his books are infused with feminism. In the second book, an army of young women march on Emerald City, because they are tired of being ruled by men. This was 1904.

Oz is a matriarchal society of witches who ran Oz for thousands of years until the Wizard came in.

Shaun: All of the characters have part of themselves ripped away, and it’s more dominant with the male characters.

David: Heartless, brainless, without courage, a wizard who is a fraud and the only person that is able to make these people whole is Dorothy.

Emerald City, Season 1 – Wizard/Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio) ©2016 NBCUniversal, photo by Michael Muller

Can you talk a little about Vincent D’Onorfio as the Wizard?

David: Once we were in Barcelona and started seeing Vincent’s performance, we realized we had to recalibrate everyone’s reactions to the Wizard, because Vincent created this character from whole cloth, I think. We didn’t know the Wizard would be such a showboat, an actor. So then we realized we needed the other characters to react to that.

We rewrote episode six where Dorothy and the Wizard confront each other on the balcony. She’s saying, ‘Look at you, how could I trust you, the way you act, the way you talk?’ But then he turns it back on Dorothy and says, ‘Well, I can say that same thing about you.’

You realize Dorothy is wearing the clothes of Oz, and she’s has become assimilated and as seduced by Oz as Wizard has.

What went into the decision to make Toto a German Shepard?

David: They’re the smartest, most well-trained dogs. The reason he’s a German Shepard is because of the circumstances that Dorothy finds her way into Oz.

Shaun: Dorothy ends up on a police car (during the tornado), that’s why the dog is a German Shepard. It’s not named Toto until the Munchkin warriors (say) that’s their name for dog.

Emerald City, Episode 101 “The Beast Forever” – Lucas (Oliver Jackson), Toto and Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona) ©2016 NBCUniversal, photo by Rico Torres

The series has been compared to Game of Thrones, can you comment about that?

David: They are the same genre, adult fantasy, but I hope that our show is beautiful and less bleak.

Have you heard from fans of the series? This Dorothy carries a gun and I’m not too convinced that Glinda the Good is that good.

David: We talked to an Oz historian today. He watched five of the episodes, and he said he loved it. Do you know what his reason was for not seeing the other five? He wants to see them with everybody else. He was thrilled by it.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane