In 1997, HBO and their amazing creative leeway released its first ever one-hour drama series. This landmark TV show is Oz, and takes place in a maximum security prison, Oswald State Penitentiary, following the lives of an assortment of inmates. Calling it a landmark accomplishment is not an over-exaggeration, as it was then the only one of its kind — tackling subjects such as the death penalty, religion, and racism within the judicial system. It managed to successfully switch from voyeurism to philosophy to poetry, and in the proces developed a style perfect for the series’ gritty nature.
The most incredible aspect (at least for me) of the show is creator Tom Fontana’s decision to make sure that every prisoner character is guilty. None of the inmates displayed throughout the series are ever really innocent, allowing for a focus on the rights and conditions of the actually guilty. It really is a remarkable technique that forces the viewer into having sympathy for murderers and gang members, who are stuck in a slow purgatory of violence and fear. This is also the reason why so many people have trouble watching the show; there aren’t many lighter moments, if any at all, and even when an inmate does start to get better and ‘rehabilitate’, his backstory isn’t exactly easy to forget.
Nonetheless, the show doesn’t just focus on prisoners’ rights, but also explores the reasons for criminal activity. Venturing into all aspects of the subject — education inside prisons, families, poverty, and drug addiction — possible solutions are presented but answers rarely given. The wrong decision is, however, almost always made, usually the result of some bigotry or narrow mindedness. As a result, despite developing empathy for the characters, we are always brought down by the show’s representation of a faulty legal system.
The character Augustus Hill, played by Harold Perrineau, is also definitely worth mentioning. He plays a cop killer who gets injured during his arrest, and is thus rendered paraplegic. While he acts out his character’s storyline really well, he is also given random bouts of poetry — making him unique in breaking the 4th wall, and communicating directly to the audience. These usually involve set pieces and tie in closely with each episode’s theme. At times they in fact almost turn into their own strange version of a voice-over, but that might be a stretch.
The Sopranos aired only two years after Oz’s premiere; The Wire, three. So this show was the one to make it happen: to let TV turn into modern epics with the time to explore characters deeper than ever before. More importantly, Oz had the creative support to be able to indulge in issues that most people do not want or find difficult to talk about. The show holds nothing back, and just as The Wire presented crime in Baltimore, Oz presents life in prison.
This is also generally why most people I know have not seen it. Simply put, this show is too much for some viewers. There is a little of yourself in so many of the inmates, so the idea that prisoners are people too becomes intimately scary. The violence is very graphic as well — not as stylized as in most films, which puts the viewer closer to prison reality. Finally, it should be noted that HBO has yet to release the show in HD online, so for most people standard definition has to suffice. It’s definitely worth it, though, the show’s first season being perhaps some of the greatest TV ever made — this is where our TV’s golden age finds its roots!
— Ilya Kundin