TV Dungeon: Oz

(1997 – 2003, USA)

Creator: Tom Fontana
Cast: Ernie Hudson, Harold Perrineau, Lee Tergesen, J.K. Simmons, Dean Winters, Terry Kinney, Eamonn Walker, Kirk Acevedo

6 Seasons (56 Episodes)

Welcome to Oz! A high security federal prison, called Oswald State Correctional Facility (‘Oz’ in slang). This series is set entirely in a section of this nightmarish prison called Emerald City, run by its creator Tim McManus. Em City is an experiment, whereby various criminal gangs of different ethnicity (blacks, Latino’s, Italian wiseguys, white supremacists, etc) are put together to live in a simulated society. To say that this experiment doesn’t run too smoothly would be somewhat of an understatement.

Because like outside of the prison, the aim of every criminal group or individual is to gain in power. When stripped of almost everything, other means must be used to achieve this, such as rape or violence. This quest for power runs through Oz like a red line. But there are other matters that the inmates pursue, like love, success or even redemption.

The problem is jealousy. Humans of whom everything is taken away, tend to get disagreeable about other people’s achievements. So whenever they sense a shred of happiness around another inmate, they will take the cause away indefinitely. This doesn’t only apply to prisoners, but to the guards as well. Like the one guard who gets a pro-basketball contract. His ankles are slices, putting him out of the game for good.

Plainly put, once you get into Oz, you’re a dead man. Sometimes literally. If Oz teaches us one thing, it is that inside Emerald City, anybody can die at any given time. Even main characters! The ones that manage to survive have to deal with the harrowing psychological effects of prison life. If they ever get out, they are likely to return. Sometimes by their own doing, or by the doing of a fellow inmate who likes to keep them around.

Absolutely hopeless.

Oz, that was there even before TV-gamechanger The Sopranos, is the show that put pay channel Home Box Office (HBO) firmly on the map. It differentiates itself from typical network shows by allowing things to unfold naturally. That means shocking content at times: rapes, gruesome violence, male frontal nudity and homosexual relations are not filtered out for the audience. That gives the series a very raw feel to it. It may be unpleasant at times, it is also very addicting.

What starts out as a realistic show, becomes more fantastical in later seasons. It is stunning either way. While the main goal of Oz, seems to be making a political statement, it also manages to provide superbly entertaining drama. This is mainly due to the brilliantly realized characters, both inmates and staff, that know how to surprise the audience every time.

Some of those characters are present from the start like Beecher, Schillinger, O’Reilly, Alvarez, Adabisi and Kareem Said. Logically their personal stories and relationships are the most fascinating, but what Oz also does very well is keeping the in- and outflow of inmates up to a pleasant level. It is not really possible to explain some of the characters’ stories as it would do injustice to the writing, but believe the reviewer: it is fascinating.

Watching Oz is basically like observing a monkey cage. There is a brawl every few minutes and the smartest inmates (best schemers) live the longest. If you’re up for great drama with a message, Oz is your fix. Just don’t get too attached to any of the characters.


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