Had a bad day? Feeling lonely and unloved? Well, cheer up: your life is not as bad as it could be. You could be living in Oz.
Oz was HBO’s first dramatic series, not as lauded as The Sopranos but every bit as soapy, profane, violent and utterly addictive.
“Oz” is the nickname of the Oswald State Correctional Facility. Within Oz is the experimental unit known as “Emerald City”, created and run by bleeding-heart liberal Tim McManus (Terry Kinney). Supposedly, residence in Em City is a reward for good behavior and allows more personal freedom than the other cell blocks. This is not always a good thing.
The fascinating thing about the show is that it shows so many different kinds of bad behavior. There are various gangs in Oz which are constantly plotting against each other: the Homeboys, the Aryans, the Latinos, the Wiseguys, the Muslims, the Bikers, and so forth. They are all nasty in their own particular way, and it’s engrossing to see them pitted against each other. I introduced a friend to the show, and warned: don’t get too attached to any of the characters, because they’ll probably die in the next few episodes. Indeed, there is no show on television that has more gleefully dispatched so many leading characters.
The production values of the show are high, and it looks as good as any show set in a prison can. We feel as if we know these places intimately: Em City, Unit B, Death Row, the infirmary, the kitchen, the visiting room, and the terrifying “hole”. The spare, jazzy musical score is never obtrusive and the multitude of fight scenes are artfully choreographed. The episodes feature at least 15 important speaking roles apiece, and three or four intertwining storylines which eventually come together, all narrated by the philosophical, wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau).
The acting is top-notch all the way. Besides Hill and Kinney, there’s Dean Winters as the scheming Ryan O’Reilly, Lee Tergesen as the put-upon Tobias Beecher, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as super-nasty drug lord Simon Adebisi, Eamonn Walker as simmering Muslim leader Kareem Said, George Morfogen as the iridescently strange lifer Bob Rebadow, Kirk Acevedo as the soulful and deranged Miguel Alvarez, Kristen Rohde as the loathsome guard Claire Howell, and Rita Moreno as the ever-measured Sister Peter Marie, plus too many others to list. Somewhat curiously, there’s quite a bit of cast crossover with the various Law & Order shows, so there is the incongruous pleasure of seeing JK Simmons one night as L&O’s police psychiatrist Skoda, and the next night as white supremacist Vern Schillinger. Or B.D. Wong as a priest and a shrink, or SVU‘s Christopher Meloni as a cop and omnisexual predator Chris Keller, or CI’s Kathryn Erbe as a cop and child-murderess Shirley Bellinger.
Australians can watch Oz on SBS on Monday nights. For the rest of the world, the first three seasons are available on DVD. I suggest you buy them and watch them, preferably with someone who is not opposed to intense violence, cussing, or full-frontal male nudity.