'Emerald City' re-imagines 'Wizard of Oz' not so wonderfully

Adria Arjona (left), Florence Kasumba in NBC's "Emerald City."

(CNN)"The Wizard of Oz" has inspired plenty of re-imagination, much of it (see "Wicked") quite wonderful. But the road to reinvention hits a brick wall with "Emerald City," an NBC series that seeks to transform the colorful story into a gritty, half-baked version of "Game of Thrones," yielding some visual splendor but mostly lots of sheer awfulness.

L. Frank Baum's tale passed into the public domain ages ago, which has allowed for all sorts of creative liberties. This latest version unfolds over 10 episodes in a manner that's loud, messy, and at times pretty near impenetrable.
The two-hour premiere introduces 20-year-old Dorothy Gale (Adria Arjona), a young nurse in Kansas who is swept by a tornado to the mystical land of Oz. Once there, she first encounters a tribe of barbaric ruffians and later finds a man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) strapped to a post sort of like a, well, scarecrow.
While gradually uncovering details about her past, Dorothy is drawn into an elaborate, multi-faceted battle for supremacy. The square-off pits the Wizard (Vincent D'Onofrio, hiding in plain view under a huge mane of hair), who has outlawed magic, against Glynda (Joely Richardson), one of many not-so-good witches who wield inordinate power.
    Entrusted to a single director, Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (whose credits include the Snow White-inspired "Mirror Mirror"), "Emerald City" displays flashes of invention in its design, although some of it appears so overtly "Thrones" inspired they should probably pay HBO a royalty.
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    The occasional clever nods to the source material, however, don't compensate for the ungainly writing, ho-hum characters and uneven performances, albeit under an assortment of fabulously garish outfits. Indeed, as constructed the story is so dispersed and fragmented that it's almost impossible to follow -- or more accurately, to muster enough energy to try.
    The major networks take so few creative risks along these lines that one hates to dissuade them from acting on such ambitions. But high marks for effort and looking beyond the traditional black-and-white development palette are no substitute for magic.
    "Only a witch can kill a witch," someone explains to Dorothy early on, a rule that produces one of "Emerald City's" few genuinely surprising moments.
    With the show scheduled on Fridays -- a night where the networks often struggle to attract viewers -- "Emerald City's" cause of death probably won't be anything so exotic. A simple lack of interest and indifference will likely do.
    "Emerald City" premieres January 6 at 9 p.m. on NBC.