My first mistake was to get this confused with the Sci-Fi Channel movies that everyone says are garbage. It's completely different. It's a Sci-Fi Channel mini-series, from the production company who also did respected mini-series like Battlestar Galactica or The Lost Room. Furthermore it was also a Critics' Choice Award nominee that was up for nine Primetime Emmy Awards in 2008, including Outstanding Miniseries. It also had a budget of twenty million, was the highest-rated miniseries of 2007 and for its first episode was both the highest-rated program in its timeslot and the network's most-watched telecast ever. I'd even seen it advertised in London. However you can ignore all that. To tell the truth, it's not much good. I like the basic idea, the design work and a couple of the actors. Everything else about it is at best mediocre.
I'll start with the basic idea. This wasn't universally popular, but I appreciated it. Basically they're doing Oz as SF, not fantasy. Oh, the witches and magic are there too, but this Oz is a fully realised world in its own right with military actions, espionage and state oppression. The Wicked Witch has an army, called the Longcoats. Meanwhile Tin Man is what they call the cops, the Cowardly Lion is one of a slave race and the Scarecrow is a guy who's had his brain removed because he knew state secrets. (Those aren't the names they use, by the way.) It's all pretty bleak. There's not the slightest trace of whimsy, which isn't the way I'd like L. Frank Baum adaptations to go in general but I think was worth trying this once as an experiment. At least this time it isn't all a sodding dream. On the contrary, this is a world with breadth and history. I liked that.
Unfortunately it's also a bit dull. Neither the characters nor the characters are particularly interesting, which meant that I'd often be watching more from inertia than because I particularly cared about what was going on.
The most interesting character is the Tin Man himself, whose real name is Wyatt Cain. I think that tells you all you need to know in itself. He's a badass gunslinger in a leather coat who'd been sentenced to something really horrible by the Wicked Witch and has lost his wife and son. The last bit of that sentence ends up exactly as cliched as you're already imagining, but otherwise Neal McDonough knows what he's trying to do with his character and is successfully doing it. He grounds the story. I quite liked him.
The Cowardly Lion gets almost nothing to do, but he reminds me of the Tharils from Warriors' Gate. His name's Raw and he's one of a leonine race of enslaved psychics who are being tortured so that the humans can use their powers. Sounds familiar? There's nothing wrong with the guy, but he's being so sidelined that it's almost funny at the end of episode three when D.G. suddenly says it's okay to be a coward or something like that. I wanted him to punch her in the face and roar, "Who's been saying I'm a coward?" That hadn't been established at all, although in fairness none of the regulars get any real character development and I don't know if you'd even have guessed Raw's supposed character trait if you hadn't previously been familiar with the original Oz stories.
Alan Cumming is for me the main disappointment. He's normally better than this. Either: (a) he's working so hard on his American accent that he's lost touch with the rest of his performance, or (b) he's being dubbed. My guess is option (b). He's still okay, but there's something about him that doesn't seem in snych, which is a shame because he's the one who might have provided the charm this miniseries needed.
"Main disappointment" doesn't mean "worst", though. He'd have to drop his talent off a cliff to fall as far as Zooey Deschanel, as "D.G." For all I know she's quite good in other stuff like the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy movie, but here she's entirely worthless. She's not bad enough to make her scenes unwatchable, but she's doing nothing at every turn. It's a non-performance.
In other words, even when these actors are good they're a bit disappointing. That's this mini-series all over. There are a few good actors here, most notably Richard Dreyfuss, but even he isn't being given much of an opportunity to make a mark. The script's pretty thin gruel, really. The Wicked Witch, aka. Azkadellia, is doing nearly as little as Deschanel, but at least that's clearly an acting choice and I thought she was okay. Besides, the most important thing about her performance is clearly her cleavage in all those tight corsets. D.G.'s "dad" is quite nice, though.
I still liked the world, though. I'm sure it wouldn't say "Oz" to a lot of people, but I was happy to spend time there. In particular it's got some nice design. It's drawing on the 1940s (give or take a decade), with everything from fascism to retro Flash Gordon SF. You can also add them to the list of people who've been visually inspired by Terry Gilliam's Brazil. You've got Western and Clint Eastwood influences. The creature designs are rather nice, although unfortunately the CGI bringing them alive looks cheap. I like the Tharils. I like the Wicked Witch herself when unmasked as a vampire-like hag, although oddly enough only the first time.
As for the script, it has nice bits. There are some mildly interesting ideas and twists, with my favourite being the one at the end of episode two. That was nasty. However it also has a few idiotic moments, like the laughable security protocols on the old Queen's otherwise insanely well-hidden secret message. How does Alan Cumming walk and talk with no brain? Didn't the Tin Man have to eat and go to the toilet in there? However all those are just details, with the important factors being that this is a mediocre runaround with almost no character development, a heroine who's the Chosen One and a bunch of cliched homilies that aren't earned. "What's really important is family." No, what's important is for lazy scriptwriters to stop leaning on "family" as if it's the holy grail. Furthermore we have structural problems in that two of our four lead characters have the story's biggest secrets locked away in their brains and just have to remember them, while too much of the plot gets pushed along by magic. "What now?" "Oh look, I just waved my hand and the CGI effects department solved our problems, even though I'm amnesiac and wasn't even in conscious control of it!" This is an unsatisfying way to make plot stuff happen.
Oh, and D.G.'s dialogue can make her sound whiny and petulant. This is over and above Deschanel's knack for making indifferent dialogue sound bad and drawing attention to its cliches.
However the script does get cute with the odd Wizard of Oz reference. They've put enough distance between them and any other Baum adaptation that it can occasionally be quite amusing when they do tip the hat. "Have a heart, Tin Man."
Overall, it's on the mediocre side of okay. I wouldn't recommend it, but it's nothing you'll need to have a rant about afterwards. It has good bits. The best episode is perhaps the first, despite some rather incoherent direction in the Kansas scenes, because at least there we're closer to L. Frank Baum. Don't buy the DVDs, for goodness sakes, but you might perhaps consider watching it if there's absolutely nothing else on TV and it's either that or paint the spare room. I didn't mind it. I just didn't think it was much good.