Remembering… Oz

A look back at the first HBO drama series to push the boundaries of television as we knew it.

Browsing through the television schedule noting the many TV dramas that are currently on air, I’ve decided to take a look back at some of the key shows that had a huge impact and revolutionized television throughout the years. This month, we go back to 1997 and revisit one of the pioneers of modern drama.

It seems we have TV dramas on almost every channel these days, taking television to new heights. From HBO’s Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, FX’s Sons of Anarchy and AMC’s The Walking Dead, most channels are pushing boundaries in terms of story, characters and scope. With bigger budgets being poured into each episode, television is putting up a strong fight against cinema’s higher production values. In some respects it’s winning – after all, cinema doesn’t have the luxury of allowing its characters to grow naturally over a long period of time.

A lot of people mark The Sopranos for turning television around in 1999, but in my opinion it happened two years earlier with a now relatively unknown series called Oz, centred around life in prison. Credited as being HBO’s first hour-long drama, it pulled out all the stops to portray a gritty, cut-throat and down right horrifying view into the lives of prisoners in the Oswald State Penitentiary (later known as the Oswald State Correctional Facility).

Focusing on an experimental unit known as Emerald City, we join new inmate Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) as he enters for the first time, to serve a four year sentence. Just like him we are completely unaware of what life will be like throughout his incarceration, but, after the first few episodes, it soon becomes clear that it will be four years of pure survival. With brief interludes to camera from fellow inmate Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau) each episode is built around a particular subject reflected in the plot.

Filled with fully rounded characters, each with their own back story, it’s hard not to get lost in each little drama unfolding around them. It’s strange how for a group of men convicted of murder, rape or GBH you find yourself empathising with them and lose focus on the heinous crimes they committed to end up there. This is a testament to the skilled writing and careful construction of each character. Creator Tom Fontana was a constant contributor to the show’s storylines, writing or co-writing all 56 episodes. This is something that is quite rare in television and this consistency is felt throughout.

Two stand-out prisoners are the psychotic Simon Adebise played to perfection by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost fans will remember him as Mr. Ecko) and J K Simmons’ member of the Aryan Brotherhood Verne Schillinger. These two are just the icing on the cake, that is a mixture of well written and unique people, grouped into the various factions where their race, creed or ancestry defines them. The strong sense of segregation and the wars that break out between them is very disturbing for a modern society. As soon as you enter Oz friends or associates need to be made and it comes down to these simple differences as to where you belong.

Content wise this is as raw as I’ve seen it. Violence and sex is commonplace these days especially for HBO, but Oz has strong elements of psychological abuse and torment as well as physical and sexual abuse. Day in, day out each character suffers mentally trying to deal with guilt, confinement or the fear of what’s around the corner; a shanking or worse?

Much of the cast went on to appear in several other HBO dramas, such as Boardwalk Empire, The Wire and The Sopranos and it’s my feeling that if it wasn’t for Oz, then maybe we wouldn’t have those HBO shows or even the likes of the The Shield and Breaking Bad. It was the show that turned television, not just around, but on its head. Treating audiences like intelligent beings and offering them engrossing complex narratives, which held their attention for six seasons. I strongly advise anyone who is an avid TV fan to watch this series, if you haven’t already done so and if you have, I’m sure you’ll agree with a lot of my points. So here’s to Oz, it’s no place like home.

Next month I’ll be looking at The Shield and how it re-invented the anti-hero.

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