Yesterday marked a special day: the 23rd anniversary of HBO’s first 1-hour TV drama, Oz, which also happens to be my favorite show of all time. Twenty. Third. Buckle up, cause this is gonna get long.
Oz, created by Tom Fontana (who also wrote/co-wrote all of the episodes), premiered in 1997 and quickly became a revolutionary in TV with the content it showed and explored with its story. Set in the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility, Oz follows the daily lives of inmates and correctional officers (C.Os) in an experimental prison unit nicknamed Emerald City. Helmed by Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), Em City aims to rehabilitate and teach its inmates responsibility during their stay, offering them perks in exchange for participation in therapy, educational classes, and other activities. McManus carefully picks the people who live in Em City, maintaining a balance between races and social classes, but as well-meaning as he is, everyone, inmate and C.O alike, engages in battles for power, control, addiction or revenge.
It’s a harsh show which never shies away from its graphic content. At the time, television hadn’t really seen so much male nudity, violence, or abuse, but given its setting and story, Oz made sure to stay true to itself and use its being a premium cable drama to show events as they naturally happen, no clever cuts or suggestive shots. It just gives it like it is. This might make it uncomfortable for some people, so by all means, check the warnings before deciding to give it a watch as it can be very triggering.
I am confident that if Oz had aired today, it would receive a hell of a lot more appreciation and attention than it had. Only a handful of people seem to remember this show even exists, despite the fact that it continues to stay relevant, benefited from quality writing, and more or less launched the careers of many beloved, successful actors (Christopher Meloni, BD Wong, Edie Falco). Its exploration of systemic abuse, the horrors of the prison system (and how biased it is), the struggle with addiction, sexuality, religion, and disability are top-notch, heartbreaking, and incredibly realistic. Oz boasts impressive inclusivity without being in your face about it, without wanting to earn brownie points for it, it simply shows the world as it is, and does it through perfectly fleshed-out characters and captivating situations.
One thing Oz does that I find so special and unique is how it uses narration. Apart from the actual events of the show, one of the inmates, the wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill (the incredible Harold Perrineau), serves as a narrator/philosopher, debating the topics a particular episode explores with wisdom, humor, and often, hyper-realistic and eye-catching sets. This break from the actual story, the fact that it’s a visual narration and Augustus is allowed to discuss things with us, the fact that we become listeners to a story but are also urged to form our own thoughts and opinions is something I haven’t seen done this well (or at all) in anything else I’ve watched over the years. Augustus’ style of approaching the problem is both simple and poetic, easy to understand but clearly imbued with insight, and makes the actual storylines tackled in the show that much richer.
Here’s a little taste of some of that wisdom:
Some inmates say that violence is the worst thing we gotta face. For me, the worst thing is the great yawn. How do you fill day after dull-ass day? We got these routines that are supposed to give our lives order and meaning. But I'm here to testify that I'm less afraid of getting shanked in my back than the routine. Cause the routine, man...the routine will kill you. – Season 1 Episode 1
What is it that makes a man common? Better yet, what makes him unique? Winning wars, winning awards? No. What lifts a man out of the ordinary is who he loves and who loves him. – Season 5 Episode 1
Without spoiling too much, I also have to show my appreciation for how Oz executes the pseudo-protagonist idea. In the first episode, we’re introduced to several characters who get to shine and be part of the main cast we’re supposed to follow. We traverse the episode learning about them, their routine, their issues, their families, their desires, their complexes. We’re made to eagerly await how they navigate the rest of their sentence and how they’ll handle the obstacles inevitably coming their way. And then one of them is brutally murdered, just like that. It flawlessly establishes that Em City and Oz as a whole is an unforgiving place where no one is safe, not even the main characters. There is no plot armor, and you have to fight to survive regardless of how important and powerful you might be. It’s actually the reason I became so immersed in the show, having found it good, but not exceptional until those final moments of the pilot, which completely rewired my brain and made me realize this is really something special.
Episode 1 also introduces us to the character who’s perhaps the easiest to relate to: Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), a normal guy who had the misfortune of ending up in prison after killing a little girl while driving under the influence. Beecher’s got no bad bone in his body, he’s unfamiliar with the harshness of prison and foreign to the concept of abandoning everything but your basic necessities. He’s easily manipulated and ends up more or less becoming a slave to the Aryan Brotherhood, being targeted by no one other than their leader, Vern Schillinger (JK Simmons).
Although many of the characters undergo brilliant development and evolve during their stay in Oz, it’s Beecher that goes through the biggest change in my opinion. His process of adapting to the prison is fascinating to watch throughout the 6 seasons, from his unfortunate but inevitable drug addiction and his constant struggle with the Aryans to his heartwarming friendship with Saïd (Eamonn Walker) and complex love with Keller (Meloni), Beecher is a fully rounded character that never fails to surprise. His transformation is tangible and well-earned, and although it makes you happy to see him slowly start to stand up to himself, it’s heartbreaking to watch him descend deeper and deeper into darkness. At the end of the day though, Beecher is living proof of what the prison system can do to someone like him. And he’s actually one of the lucky ones…
Beecher’s relationship with Keller deserves an entire essay on its own, but I’ll just limit myself to a paragraph. It’s portrayed with such reality and rawness, evolves and devolves perfectly in sync with who the characters are and what their situation is, and perfectly encompasses the hopelessness of finding love in such a dark place. Although it’s safe to say Keller is the more toxic one, Beecher isn’t an angel either, they are both bad for each other and even for themselves really, but the moments where they come together and find solace and affection in each other are just as valuable as the ones where they hurt each other.
When it comes to characters, none of them are as cool as Ryan O’Reily (Dean Winters) in my opinion. The guy basically runs the prison from behind the scenes, always scheming and getting people killed simply by saying the right thing to the right people. He rarely gets his own hands dirty, electing to manipulate others into doing his bidding without even realizing. He’s clever as hell, shifty but charming, he knows how to play the game, when to take his time, when to act quickly, who to befriend and who to take out. He has life in Oz pretty much conquered.
That is until his brother, Cyril (Scott William Winters) ends up in Oz as well, and Ryan goes from heartless badass to caring older brother badass. He’s finally got something to worry about other than his own ass, and the fact that Cyril’s mentally handicapped makes it that much harder to care for him, as he tends to be easily manipulated or targeted by the other inmates. Add Ryan’s new obsession/love for the prison doctor, Gloria Nathan (Lauren Vélez), and you’ve got a nice mix of down to earth, dangerously intelligent character with flaws and weaknesses to boot. Ryan’s a total pleasure to watch, especially when he plays his mind-games and nonchalantly pits people against each other. Nailing a character like him without making him unlikeable or “overpowered” is really quite difficult, so watching him really helps if you’ve got interest in writing.
There’s loads happening in Oz. From rioting to gang wars, therapy, education, love, friendship, corruption, addiction, illness, the story is constantly moving forward, but it never really becomes Entertainment as we know it now. Oz essentially follows the story of people, not the story of Something that characters participate at. Oz is about humans, their lives and their journeys, be it as prisoners or as correctional officers, leaders or doctors or therapists or priests or nuns. The characters influence the action, not the other way around, and they do so with an exceptional level of realism that still manages to be captivating and entertaining without being flashy.
Oz shows us what happens to African-American teens, tried as adults, who end up in a maximum security prison and join a bad crowd. Kenny Wangler (J.D Williams) showed signs of starting on the right path, being helped to turn his illiteracy around and actually encouraged to get his GED, but as long as he kept being around drugs and people like Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), there was no way he was going to succeed. Oz shows us what happens to prisoners when C.Os inevitably use their power against them. Oz shows us what happens to people who lose their kids, people who lose their mind, people who are victims of abuse, people who desperately try to do good but are always dragged down, people who lose their power and respect, people who find peace through religion, people who were just victims of bad luck, people unjustly and unfairly being punished, people who have nothing else to live for, people who are desperate to return to freedom, people who, not knowing anything else, go right back to a life of crime once they escape.
Oz is a diverse show exploring diverse themes, a show that transcends television to discuss real problems still prevalent today. What I wrote here doesn’t even begin to describe how brilliant it is, from its characters to its stories, but hopefully it’s enough to entice people to watch it.
As always, thank you so much for reading, and see you next week!
Happy 23rd anniversary, Oz!