Jab’s Reviews: HBO’s Oz

“OZ… that’s the name on the street for the Oswald State Maximum Security Correctional Facility- Level Four”

This show stands out as one of my all-time favorites, despite a few hiccups. This was HBO’s very-first original series, before “The Sopranos”, “Sex and the City”, “The Wire” and others came THIS. The brainchild of series creator Tom Fontana, “Oz” takes place in the Oswald State Maximum Security Penitentiary (later Correctional Facility, as narrator Augustus Hill notes- nobody is “penitent”. NOBODY.), and details the daily lives of the inmates and whichever workers are on-shift.

The core of the show is the cast of “Emerald City” (a play on the prison’s nickname), an experimental unit by a bleeding-heart type named Tim McManus, who hopes for a “better kind of prison”, after seeing what went wrong in Attica at his hometown. Based partially on what some real-world prisons were doing, Emerald City is made up of glass “pods” instead of cells, and allows inmates free reign of movement and their own clothes to wear (so that the entire cast doesn’t have to wear orange or grey one-sies), but at the cost of personal freedoms and more rules. They have to clean up after themselves, eat, sleep and watch TV when they’re told to, etc.

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“Oz” is a brutally fascinating show, and legendary for it’s total level of violence, vulgarity, explicit content (they REALLY MEAN that this show is violent and has sexual content- I can’t think of a single other TV show that contains more of either), and of course, the famous amount of anal rape involved. Fontana doesn’t apologize for it (even though at times they’re clearly being vulgar for the sake of being vulgar and EXTREEEEME)- this is based off of ACTUAL events in most prison (of course all mashed together in ONE prison, making Oswald look like the most poorly-run facility in the world), and anything less would be a lie.

It’s a violent, mean, ugly show, and knows it. But deep at it’s centre, you JUST might find a tale of redemption or two. Fontana says that his show is always about looking for humanity in the strangest places, and the potential for some people to get better. A few characters actually got honest-to-God FACE TURNS during the show, going from good to crazy to evil to good again.

This is combined with some of the most insightful, in-depth characterizations I’ve ever seen. When HBO okay’d the show, they told Fontana “We don’t care if they’re likeable- we just want them to be interesting”. To say that this is like every TV & movie writer’s wet dream is a HUGE understatement, and Fontana was beside himself with joy (he was originally gonna do a “Club Med” show about a minimum security prison, when HBO came around looking for a Maximum Security-type show).

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He based it around some real events, but didn’t try too hard to make things realistic (when critics called the show “Real”, they really meant “Gritty and with real swearing”, since this was at that point a HUGE rarity on television)- guys are given access to fancy clothes, huge knives, tons of free time with no guards around, etc. Fontana also produced some of the most interesting and multi-faceted characters in television history:

* Warden Leo Glynn– a serious, strict, over-bearing personality who nonetheless wanted the right thing done. NO sympathy for the inmates whatsoever.

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* Tim McManus, Unit Manager of Emerald City– A “good cop” of sorts to Leo’s “Bad Cop”, he is a little too keen to rehabilitate, and often goes for lost causes. A notorious womanizer and bleeding-heart, a bit too naive for his own good.

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* Tobias Beecher– A rich lawyer from a good family, who nonetheless has a ton of issues, which ultimately landed him in prison after he killed a young girl. The ultimate “P.O.V.” character, you see the prison through HIS eyes, because he’s new to the experience and needs to find out everything, being not streetwise in the slightest. Vulnerable, shy and nervous, he is quickly and horribly victimized, and ultimately suffers a colossal series of tragedies, to the point where you’re like “ENOUGH ALREADY!” He’s left with the choice to become a terrible person in return, to get revenge (The Abyss looks also), or to try and rise above it all, and forgive.

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* Vern Schillinger– A sadistic, racist leader of the Aryan Brotherhood, Vern commits the show’s first rape, and makes lives hell for numerous victims over the course of the show. One of the ultimate expressions of evil.

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* Kareem Said– A blowhard of a Muslim activist, and the first Muslim main character in American TV history. Moralistic and charismatic, but with his own set of demons, including a huge ego.

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* Simon Adebisi- A hedonistic animal of a man, and the craziest character, but capable of some sly planning.

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* Ryan O’Reily– A nasty schemer, who plays everyone against each other like a true Manipulative Bastard, who ultimately ends up falling for a doctor within the prison, and ends up manipulating himself into a corner, as bad things keep on happening to him and everyone he knows.

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* Chris Keller– Debuting in Season Two to seduce Beecher in revenge for what goes on with him & Schillinger, Keller ultimately becomes an obsessive, controlling bastard in his own right, and frequently shifts in how he treats “Tobey”.

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* and many, many more. This show ends up with a HUGE cast, among the biggest I’ve ever seen, as people come and go frequently.

Recurring themes are:

* Crimes– Every inmate is introduced with a shot of what their crime was, shot in a “home-video” type of way. They go from the mundane (shooting a guy in a drug deal gone wrong) to the understandable (Schillinger- the vilest person on the show- beats up a guy for drug dealing to his kids, in a great case of irony as it’s not that vicious compared to what the man really is) to the epically villainous (Jefferson Keane murders a rival and his wife as they’re exiting the church on their wedding night) to the chaotic (Ryan O’Reily is on a drug-fueled vehicular rampage) to the sudden (Bob Rebadow casually uses a pen to pierce the throat of a man ripping up his architectural designs) to the vicious (Adebisi decapitates an undercover cop). Tom Fontana notes that “EVERYONE deserves to be there”, and there’s no frame-ups sending these guys to jail. Every character is a real criminal.

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* The Routine & Rules– Guys are bored a lot of the time, and as such, they get EXTREMELY excited every time violence is inflicted on someone. All infractions result in everyone being forced into their cells for a while. Occasionally, the whole prison gets locked down. Notably, every prisoner is introduced by their number (year of crime, followed by their last initial, then the actor’s birth month or something)- they ARE numbers, as far as the system is concerned.

* Drug addiction– A fat chunk of the show is made up of drug addicts, recovering and otherwise, and the tribulations they have to go through.

* Gang warfare– The Latinos, Blacks & Italians are usually fighting for control of the drug (called “Tits”- because they’re like “Mother’s Milk”) trade. The Aryans protect their own, and various other side-groups also wrestle for either power or respect.

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* Racism– The Aryans & Bikers hate minorities in general. The Muslims are distrustful of whites. The Latinos are out for themselves. The Homeboys dislike whites, and Adebisi in particular despises them. Race is a HUGE factor in “Oz”- arguably less so than in real prisons. Scenes of white & black characters chatting with each other about things are absolutely alien to much of real prison life.

* Rape– Probably the show’s most famous aspect, to both outsiders who’ve only heard about it, and anyone who watched. A horrible reality of prison life (they leave this out of most comic books, thankfully), plenty of weak male characters (Beecher, Peter Schibetta, Cyril O’Reily) are beaten up and sodomized by sex-hungry monsters, and we see the full repercussions of it. It’s rarely played for laughs (even though it can be a little funny), as you’re left watching in horror at what these guys have to go through.

* Prison Love– Beecher and O’Reily in particular. Beecher with fellow inmate Chris Keller (in the most interesting homosexual relationship I’ve ever seen on TV), and O’Reily with Dr. Nathan, who saves him from breast cancer. Curiously, every time people fall in love in Oz, someone has to die.

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* The Outside– Prisoners are left only hearing about what goes on “Outside the walls”. In a great bit of directing, you pretty much NEVER see actual daylight on this show, except for the home-video crime scenes, and TWO instances of people walking outside the prison. This gives the show a palpable sense of claustrophobia, as everything is lit by artificial means, and takes place indoors. EVERYTHING.

* Violence– Another brutal reality of prison life. People are beaten, maimed and murdered on this show in stuff comparable to “The Passion of the Christ”. The LIGHTER deaths see guys with their throats slit or stomachs punctured by “shanks”. A man is NAILED TO A GYMNASIUM FLOOR in a crucifixion pose because he molested some kids. A guard has his eyes gouged out of his skull by an inmate on the orders of a boss. A guy dies of a horrible allergic reaction to eggs, deliberately placed by another inmate. Someone dies of internal hemorrhaging after being fed ground-up glass for months.

* Death– ANYONE can die. One of the very first TV shows to do this (if not THE first)- major characters come in and die at lightning speed sometimes. Introduced characters can get a big push, only to be suddenly-killed episodes later. Various characters even get TONS of characterization and backstory, only to die early. Having just gone through the entire series, it’s bizarre to realize that at one point Jefferson Keane was one of the most-focused on characters in the first season, since he dies halfway through it.

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* Revenge– The never-ending cycle of torment and revenge is huge, as gangs repeatedly “get each other back” for every possible slight. The Beecher/Schillinger war STARTS with anal rape, and only gets worse from there, as Schillinger victimizes Beecher in every way possible, only to be maimed, beaten, crapped on (literally- Beecher ties him to the floor and takes a steamer on his face) and set-up for more jail time. Schillinger responds by wrecking Beecher’s sanity. The men lose three children between them, and despite several attempts at burying the hatchet, in the end, only one can walk away.

* Redemption & Rehabilitation– You see what guys go through, trying to improve their lot in life. Guys try to kick drugs, become better people, and make parole… and usually fail. Fontana knew damn well from his research that most people released from prison just end up going right back, as they’re left in even WORSE shape once they get out. In effect, the prison was only making more effective criminals. It’s a huge victory for the staff (and the show’s writers) every time someone can actually get out with their morals intact.

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In short (well short by MY standards- I kinda Ares’d out here watching all six seasons in a row), this is one of the most interesting shows of all time, and comes hugely recommended.

Some of the acting on here is among the best I’ve ever seen. Dean “Ryan O’Reily” Winters does a TOUR DE FORCE performance in the episode when Cyril is to be executed, Adebisi and Schillinger are so menacing that I STILL have trouble watching them in movies (“G.I. Joe” and “Spider-Man”, amongst others), and you REALLY believe that Beecher and Keller are two guys brutally and insanely in love.

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Just avoid it if you’re AT ALL light of heart. This show makes “Prison Break” look like a frickin’ Club Med, and makes “The Sopranos” look like it’s for sissies. It makes an unmistakable dive later on, with a bunch of flaws popping up. Sure, “Anyone Can Die” makes things interesting, but the show lost a MAJOR factor when a certain Nigerian immigrant was killed in Season Four.

Tons of great characters were killed before their time, and more interesting things could be done with them (Cannibal Donald Groves only lasted a handful of episodes, The Colonel in later seasons was killed WAY too early), and the final seasons sees a never-ending stream of people wiped out. The show generally lacks subtlety, beating you over the head with it’s morals and reasoning behind various plots.

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Episodes start to get REALLY outlandish and silly later on, as we deal with Super-Aging Drugs (aging prisoners until the point of there release, then letting them go), Luke Perry haunting people from beyond the grave (makes sense in context), a guy believing he is Satan himself, a guy BUILDING A BOMB WHILE INSIDE THE JAIL, and more.

The acting in this show is some of the best I’ve ever seen on TV, but a lot of the background cast is lacking, especially when it’s time to step up and become major characters (Timmy Kirk, Jaz Hoyt). But still, check it out on HBO GO sometime when you have a spare month to binge watch!

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