Why HBO’s Oz Is Still Influential 20 Years Later

We revisit HBO's sterling and seminal prison drama Oz on the run-up to its 20th anniversary...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Oz is sometimes criminally overlooked in the pantheon of TV dramas, which is a great sin indeed; not only because the show is the obvious grand-or-God parent to a multitude of modern classics (without Oz, it’s doubtful whether The Sopranos would’ve existed), but also because it’s an immaculately acted, endlessly compelling, emotionally resonant powerhouse of a show that demands – and deserves – recognition and respect.

These days we’re inured to the darkness that pervades our favorite, highest-rated shows; desensitised to the violence that sweeps down from Westeros to Baltimore, via Fargo and Albuquerque. Anti-heroes have almost become de rigueur, to the point where a return to the chiselled-chinned, morally-flawless supermen of network TV’s heyday is perhaps the only route of subversion still open to today’s show-runners.

It’s easy to forget that when Oz – HBO’s powerful first foray into original, hour-long scripted drama – first burst into the public consciousness in 1997 there had been nothing quite like it on TV before. Certainly nothing to match its bleakness, verisimilitude or narrative-framing-flights-of-fancy. The lineage of the televisual revolution – the rightly-dubbed golden age – that kicked off during the 1990s, almost certainly stretches back further than Oz, but Oz was the first show to take such huge, balls-out risks with its characters and storytelling.

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A little history lesson here, perhaps: The Sopranos, The Shield and Breaking Bad weren’t the first shows to feature sympathetic and interesting, yet unlikeable and morally abhorrent protagonists; Game Of Thrones wasn’t the first show to feature such a sprawling, ever-expanding cast of characters, any one of whom could suffer any one of a thousand senseless deaths at any given second; The Wire wasn’t the first show to explore a cold, corrupt and unforgiving system that stacked the deck against its less fortunate members from birth, a system locked in place by an endlessly repeating cycle of birth, death, violence and re-birth. Oz was there first, kicking ass and taking names.

When series’ architect and show-runner Tom Fontana built Oz from the ground up he took the TV show rule-book and hurled it into the stratosphere. He did this with the full support and blessing of the suits at HBO, who allowed the show to unfold and evolve with almost zero interference: The end result is brave, beautiful and brutal.

Life on the inside

Oz is the story of life within “Emerald City,” an experimental wing in the Oswald State Penitentiary. While the wider penitentiary is governed by the callously pragmatic and soullessly bureaucratic warden Leo Glynn (a post-Ghostbusters Ernie Hudson), the prison-within-a-prison of Em City is presided over by Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), a man who wants to change for the better not only the lives of the prisoners in his charge, but also the world that made them that way.

McManus’ belief in the restorative powers of education, his thirst for social justice, his emphasis on rehabilitation over retribution, and his humanizing philosophy all frequently attract the ire (and apathy) of the warden, the guards, the state governor and the great American public, but opposition also comes from within; from the inmates themselves, who see McManus as either a hopelessly (perhaps even dangerously) naive and idealistic fool, or an arrogant, condescending suit who’s just as much a part of the system that oppresses them as people like the governor – even if McManus is too blinded by his own hubris to realize it.

Of course it isn’t just polite society or its authoritarian instruments that act against the inmates. The inmates act against each other, viewing any attempt by their peers to escape the system, or any sign of change or betterment, as a betrayal of some sacred “them and us” code.

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When young gang-banger Kenny Wangler (JD Williams) is taught to read, and set on a course of self-improvement through education, his malevolent mentor – the half-mad Nigerian murderer and drug-dealer Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) – makes it his mission to extinguish those first faint flames of hope and progress. Adebisi mocks him, bullies him, threatens him, tempts him with drugs, and even uses Kenny’s first reading book as a vessel to conceal drugs from the guards. Adebisi very quickly whittles the young man’s options back down to one: a wasted life of posturing, entropy, drugs and violence.

Kenny is far from a sympathetic character – he’s a hot-tempered thug and bully – but the brief glimpse of the boy he could’ve been had his life and the world around him been different makes it difficult to feel anything towards his plight but pity, shame, and anger.

Through the ever-bubbling melting pot of Em City, Oz is able to take an unflinching look at the dark underbelly of the American dream. The show asks a thousand questions, almost none of which have an easy answer: have the inmates been failed by society or have they failed themselves; in whose interests does the system really work; is state-sanctioned execution ever morally defensible; can anyone – guard or prisoner alike – hold on to their humanity in prison?

(And also questions like: “A pill that causes prisoners to age prematurely, which they can take in exchange for a reduced sentence? Really, Oz?” Sometimes the show could be wilfully ridiculous, particularly in its later years.)

Over the course of six savage, excoriating seasons, Oz’s Em City presents itself as a microcosm of society: a site of hope, hate, tragedy, tribalism, greed, racism, intolerance, pain, frustration, political wrangling, corporate dick-swinging, and more sex, drugs, murder and mayhem than you can shake a shiv at.

For an hour at a time the audience is forced to observe and endure Oz‘s full spectrum of death, corruption and destruction without pause or respite, as the camera only ever leaves the claustrophobic environs of the prison to bring us brief snapshots of the crimes that brought its inmates there in the first place (with a couple of notable, and heartbreaking, exceptions). Here, Oz shares a common thread with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, whose director chose to have the action leave the asylum only once, to follow McMurphy and co on their boat-based hijinks. Making this narrative and directorial choice for Oz succeeds in keeping us captive alongside the prison’s guards and inmates, bringing us a better understanding of their – quite literally in some cases – inescapable plight.

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In the very first episode, young Mafioso Dino Ortelani (Jon Seda) sets McManus straight with a line that acts as both a mission statement for the show, and a prophecy of things to come: “Let me tell you something, coach. Even with all your good intentions, all your reforms, and all your overall policies, I ain’t ever gonna change. We ain’t ever gonna change. None of us.”

In the end, Dino was wrong. The inmates did change: they got worse. That first episode concludes with an act of rug-pulling that, in its own horrific way, forms a rather apt mission statement for the show: best buckle up, buckos, because in this show, all bets are off.

Who would live in a Big House like this?

Em City seems to be in a perpetual state of flux, of war. Inmate vs inmate, guard vs inmate, tribe vs tribe. Death by gun, bomb, fist, foot, knife, poison, disease, strangulation, suffocation, electrocution, immolation – and even eggs. It takes a special breed of prisoner to emerge from its daily dangers and horrors alive, much less unscathed.

Oz‘s undisputed master of the savage art of survival is Ryan O’Reilly (Dean Winters) – a sinewy, self-regarding, psychopathic species-of-one – a man so cunning, venal and criminally resourceful that he could swagger through a mushroom cloud without mussing a hair on his head, emerging with a smug smile and a stranger’s Rolex wrapped around his wrist, a conga-line of cockroaches trailing in his wake.

O’Reilly cuts a Machiavellian figure as he weaves between the show’s many cliques and tribes, whispering of betrayal here, pointing the finger there, moving his enemies around like chess pieces and dispatching them with the sure-footed guile of a psy-ops agent.

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But even a man as lost to civil society as Ryan O’Reilly is at least explainable, even if he isn’t wholly redeemable. We meet his family, and in them we see reflections of O’Reilly’s past and potential: we see his contempt for his selfish sack of shit father whose actions – and indeed lack of them – doubtless contributed to his journey down his one-way, wayward path; we see the feelings of love, duty, anger, irritation and guilt he feels towards his disabled brother, Cyril (Scott William Winters, Dean Winter’s real-life brother), with whom he shares a cell; and we see how this relationship brings out both the best and the worst in O’Reilly.

Cyril entered adulthood just as much of a cold-hearted killer as his brother, but an accident left him with irreparable brain-damage and the IQ and outlook of a child. It’s the latter Cyril we first meet in Oz. Cyril is at once O’Reilly’s hope, humanity, and Achilles’ heel, and through him the show is able to examine how the penal system treats prisoners with special needs (Spoiler alert: not very well), while also exploring notions of memory, identity, blame, redemption, culpability and, of course injustice.

One man in Oz who could write a book about injustice (and at one point actually does) is the Muslim Brotherhood firebrand, Karim Said (Eamonn Walker). Karim finds himself in Oz thanks to his particular brand of fight-the-power political extremism, and once there never stops fighting: against the system, against sin, against prejudice, and, most notably, against his own demons, some of which are too powerful even for God to quell. Karim’s a man of deeply felt and held principles, in many ways a religious counterpart to McManus, both men sharing a predilection for righteous anger and a susceptibility to the sin of pride.

It’s hard to know whether Karim is brave or stubborn, fearless or feverish, self-sacrificing or arrogant, but he’s undoubtedly one of the most fascinatingly flawed and complex characters on the show. If you’ve any scintilla of soul at all you’ll hopefully find yourself vicariously revelling in his many triumphs, perhaps even punching the air with glee. The final chapter of Karim’s story in Oz – sad, tragic and sudden – is either proof of the unknowable nature of Allah’s ultimate plan, or a victory for the forces of chaos in a cold and Godless universe. That’s for you to decide.

These characters, though, are merely the tip of the iceberg in a cast that reads like a roll-call of almost every major and minor actor that would later appear in HBO’s, AMC’s, and Showtime’s most critically acclaimed shows. There are so many actors from The Wire in Oz that you could invent some bizarre bingo drinking-game and find yourself very, very drunk indeed. Elsewhere you’ll find powerhouse performances from Christopher Meloni, Kirk Acevedo, BD Wong, Rita Moreno and Edie Falco (who was great as weary, morally-compromised prison officer Diane Whittlesey, but bottomless thanks to Tom Fontana for releasing Edie from the show to allow her to embrace her career-defining role as Carmella on The Sopranos).

While it’s hard to home in on the heart of a show when its cast is so large and its themes so multifarious, Oz’s strongest beats arguably are to be found in the Shakespearean-hued hatred that flows between the disgraced former attorney Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) and the vengeful and sociopathic neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons).

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Beecher begins his life in Oz as a confused, frightened, self-hating wreck, an easy piece of prey for big Vern, who quickly turns Beecher into his slave: forcing him to run errands, compelling him to obey his every command, raping him, and violently assaulting him. Their relationship spreads throughout their souls and cell-mates like a cancer, a duel of destruction and fatal one-up-man-ship that eventually makes collateral damage of their families. Carnage aside, there’s still room for a tragic love story along the way (although definitely not between Beecher and Schillinger).

Beecher’s story shows how easily a suburban everyman can succumb to violence and criminality when his privilege is subverted and the conditions for civil descent are ripe. Schillinger’s story shows us the heavy toll that hatred can take on a man’s life, especially if his righteousness blinds him to his folly. The story of both men together highlights the ultimate tragedy and futility of vengeance. Dig two graves, as the old saying goes. In their case, they needed a lot more than two.

Over the rainbow, over the Hill

All of Oz‘s murder and mayhem is stitched together and book-ended by the show’s narrator, and Em City inmate, Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), whom we learn was bound to life in a wheelchair (imprisoned twice) by a cop’s bullet and a tumble from a roof. Lest we feel too much sympathy for Hill, prior to his paralysing injury he had been fleeing arrest, and in the process had shot and killed a police officer.

Despite his murky origins, Hill is undoubtedly one of the show’s most sympathetic characters, an intelligent, articulate man who’s smart enough to know who and what made him into the man he became. His near-invisibility in the prison (some of it through choice, some of it as a consequence of his disability), also makes him the perfect narrator. Hill sits and waits, watches and listens as the story of have-nots and have-nothings unfolds in Oz‘s hallowed halls, chronicling the love, fear, hate, pain, joy and death that binds them all together. His wry asides, diatribes, recitations, rages, in-your-face-philosophising and eloquently excoriating parcels of street wisdom add a gravitas and a poignancy to the show that at times lends it the feel of an RSC stage production.

Hill is our man on the inside, a Greek chorus of one, and perhaps the show’s true point-of-entry character. We’re him. He’s us. Or we could be, given a simple twist of fate.

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In truth, we could’ve been any of them. That’s the savage point.

As Hill himself tells us at the end of Oz‘s sombre final chapter:

“The story is simple: a man lives in prison, and dies. How he dies, that’s easy. The who and the why is the complex part – the human part, the only part worth knowing.”

Get to know Oz. You won’t regret it.