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In Appreciation of Oz

todayMarch 5, 2015 340

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Andrew Nogay

Web Content Contributor


At this year’s Academy Awards, J.K. Simmons won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his intense portrayal of an abusive music teacher in Whiplash. It was a completely deserving award, and it wasn’t the only thing he won this awards season. In total he won 40 awards for that role, a resounding celebration from the film community. The 60-year-old character actor is getting the attention he deserves for two decades of incredible work.

However, perhaps his most impressive performance and most menacing character came from an HBO show called Oz, one of the most impressive and menacing shows to ever be put on the small screen. Oz isn’t mentioned as one of the best TV shows ever, but it should. It was ground-breaking television, the forerunner for much of the “golden age” of television we currently enjoy.

Its Place in History

Still of Augustus Hill and Sister Peter Marie.
Still of Augustus Hill and Sister Peter Marie. Photo by Eric Liebowitz – © Home Box Office.

“Oz. That’s the name on the street for the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary. Oz is retro. Oz is retribution. You wanna punish a man? Separate him from his family, separate him from himself, cage him up with his own kind. Oz is hard times doing hard time.”-Episode 1.1

Oz is about a prison, the people who work there and of course the inmates. It premiered in the summer of 1997, and ended early in 2003 after six seasons and 56 episodes. During its course, the TV landscape changed from Oz being the only hour long, uncensored drama anywhere to HBO being the most acclaimed channel on television, with The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under well into their runs. Oz was the first hour-long drama HBO ever made, which was the format that just about every acclaimed show in the golden age of television followed.

Oz was the forerunner of some of the best TV shows ever, but it was also the culmination of the previous era of television. Network TV shows got more daring in the 90’s, and the best of those expanded what television could do, and Oz adopted a lot from those shows. Twin Peaks showed that television could be a the singular work of an individual artist. For Twin Peaks that auteur was David Lynch, and for Oz it was creator Tom Fantana. Homicide: Life on the Streets showed that successful shows could be gritty, both in content and style, a concept Oz borrowed from heavily. The X-Files showed that great character actors are what rounds out the edges on historic shows, and Oz’s cast of characters ran deep. Oz put all these elements together, and with the creative freedom it was able to have at HBO, created the mold for the best television dramas ever.

Its Characters

Still of Vern Schillinger.
Still of Vern Schillinger. From the Internet Movie Database.

“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.”-Episode 6.8

Oz is, above all else, a show about characters. The characters are rich and varied. On of the more clever things Oz does is that it has the concept of Emerald City (“Em City”), an experimental portion of the prison where inmates are hand-picked to reflect a melting pot of sorts. The inhabitants of Em City are treated differently than the other inmates, as they are meant to be rehabilitated rather than just punished and serve out their sentences. Every social and ethnic group is represented in Em City, which works great within the show as each group tries to gain power in the prison. There are so many different people represented, and the characters are fleshed out to the point that Oz feels like a realistic representation of this situation.

Some characters stand out more than others. J.K. Simmons’ Vern Schillinger might be one of the greatest villains in the history of television. He is a serial killer/rapist neo-nazi who does nothing but antagonize and hate. He is smart enough to get away with what he does, but never repents for the awful things he does. He is a kinetic character; every scene with him is better because he is there, which may be attributed to the great acting of Simmons. The worst thing about him is that he is a real character. He isn’t just some character whose only dimension is to cause harm, he actually has a moral code, ambitions and feelings. It’s just that they’re screwed up.

Harold Perrineau’s Augustus Hill is another dynamic and truly original character. He is in prison for murder, and was paralyzed from the waist down when he was arrested. Although he usually isn’t involved with the important plots of the show, and isn’t affiliated with any gangs, Hill is the narrator of the series. He monologues throughout each show, with a certain universal theme that pertains to that particular episode of Oz. He is the omnipresent presence of Oz that translates all the terrible things that happen in the show into meaning. The meaning might be something the audience doesn’t want to hear, but it is necessary to understand the show.

Lee Tergesen’s Tobias Beecher is the prisoner a majority of the audience would identify with the most, i.e., he isn’t a hardened criminal. He was a lawyer who killed a little girl while driving drunk, and is completely out of his depth in Oz.The first episode of the series begins with his first day in Oz, and he is almost immediately made a prag (sexual slave) by Schillinger, and endures enough abuses and humiliations to break almost any human. Beecher eventually takes his revenge, then Schillinger exacts his, and their war with each other is the driving plot line to most of Oz. He is a constantly changing character, and Tergesen does a great job expressing the huge emotional changes the character goes through.

An interesting thing about Oz is that there is no real main character. Cases could be made for a number of individuals to be the main character, but in the run of the show each character has stretches where they are the side character and other characters and plots take the forefront. It’s like Oz is an web, and each strand is a character, as they cross paths with each other but each drive in their own direction. In fact, the main character of Oz is really the prison itself. Everything happens because these men are imprisoned together, and the prison is personified by the characters on numerous occasions. It is so symbolic to many of the inmates, as it is both where they live and where their hopes die. The weight of all the symbolism given to it makes it seem almost living thing.

Its Brutality

Still of Tobias Beecher.
Still of Tobias Beecher. From the Internet Movie Database.

“Listen to me. I loved alcohol. I loved heroin. I had to put them behind me because they were poison. Death. You are death. Let me live.”-Episode 6.6

There has never been a TV show as graphic as Oz. Its imdb parent’s guide is a perfect 50/50. Not even A Serbian Film or Salò has a 50! Jeezy petes, that’s actually pretty impressive.

Nearly every episode, there is a rape or murder. In fact, both of those happen in the first episode. One of the most challenging things Oz does is that in the first episode it sets up a character to be one of the main characters, and he is lit on fire and dies at the end of the first episode. It is one of the most horrible deaths imaginable, and it happens in the first episode. Any preconceived notions of what kind of show Oz was is destroyed by this act, and it isn’t even the most grizzly death in Oz’s run. In fact, in just the second episode a man is tortured, castrated and killed in retaliation to the murder in the first episode. Violent acts build other violent acts in Oz, and it often comes crashing down brutally. 

On of the more polarizing things about Oz is the rape that occurs. It’s so polarizing, I feel like I’m walking on eggshells just talking about it. Though it doesn’t happen all the time, many storylines involve rape, or at least the aftermath of it. Few characters are rapists, but whenever it happens it leaves an impression of the viewer. The audience’s built-in fear of it, along with the fear of dying, creates an air of paranoia that surrounds every episode of Oz.

Drugs are also rampant in Oz. Many of the characters were drug dealers on the outside, and continue their careers in jail. Control over the drug trade is what creates much of the conflict between the different social groups, and many people are murdered because of drugs. Drug overdoses occur as well, and some prisoners are actually murdered through spiked drugs.

The disturbing thing about all the terrible acts in Oz isn’t necessarily that they happen, it’s how they happen. People are murdered for no reason, characters rape because they’re psychopaths and everybody accepts this as a way of life in Oz. The point the show is trying to make is that these are awful things and nobody should be used to them, but the characters are. With the acclimation to violence, hopelessness comes; from hopelessness, characters accept their death. It’s a cycle that destroys the characters the audience come to be attached to, and it is wrenching to watch.

Its Themes

Still of Miguel Alvarez.
Still of Miguel Alvarez. From the Internet Movie Database.

“Father, where was god when my son died?” “The same place he was when his own son died.”-Episode 1.4

One of the most impressive things about Oz is that it tries to cover every topic it can. Everything is discussed, from religion, to the legal system, to race relations, to the human condition. Instead of just having a show about prison life, Oz makes every act relatable to something on the outside of prison. Em City is used as a microcosm of society, and the show used the vehicle of prison to discuss things that plague society at large.

Of course, not every thematic stance in Oz is universal, much of it is very specific to the characters. For example, a lot of the storylines of Oz are about redemption, but the path towards it is never easy. The noble characters often fall, and the devious characters rarely rise. Each character has a set of themes that constantly affect their lives. For Beecher, it’s sobriety. For Schillinger, it’s hatred. For Kareem Said, it’s balancing his religion with his emotions. For Rick Fox’s character, his theme was somehow parlaying being a basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers into a recurring role in one of the best TV shows ever.

Maybe Oz’s tried to explain everything about both the characters and the show is because it couldn’t. Life in Oz is arbitrarily brutal and confusing, and no amount of observation changed the random acts of violence. The staff of the prison tried to understand the prisoners, and the prisoners tried to understand their situation. In the end, neither did. This doesn’t come across as fulfilling, but rather allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions. Like this conclusion from me. Honestly, I could be completely off in my assessment of Oz’s overall theme, in which case I’ve wasted all of our time. Sorry about that…

Its Cast

Still of Adebisi and Poet.
Still of Simon Adebisi and Poet. From the Internet Movie Database.

“Adebisi. Ends in ‘I’. Sure you’re not Italian?” “Schibetta ends in ‘A’. Maybe you’re African.”-Episode 1.5

J.K. Simmons isn’t the only member of the cast to have an Oscar; Rita Moreno, who plays Sister Peter Marie, won an Oscar in 1961 for West Side Story. It also employed a GhostBuster! And it had the guy who played Liz Lemon’s worst boyfriend! But really, just look at Oz’s cast list and be impressed. It’s a who’s who of character actors. Among the notable names that I haven’t already mentioned:

  • Edie Falco, who went on to be one of the greatest female characters in television history on the Sopranos, got her first big role in Oz.
  • Scott William Winters, who played the a**hole college know-it-all in Good Will Hunting, is a brain-damaged sweetheart in Oz. For real.
  • There’s a ton of actors who went onto larger roles in The Wire who first got introduced to HBO audiences through Oz, like J.D Williams, Seth Gilliam and Lance Reddick.
  • Luke “Please Don’t Give Me a Nickname” Perry was around for a bit after he finished 90210.
  • Luis Guzmán was the leader of the Mexican gang between his roles in Boogie Nights and Traffic. That guys is just the best.
  • Seriously, just go and look at the cast list.

Like any show that had an enormous cast, Oz had a bad performance every now and then, but the acting was generally superb. A lot of the time, the best performances were given by the actors who whose most notable work was Oz, which is too bad but that’s the breaks of the business. However, I am excited that the guy who played Adebesi is going to be on Game of Thrones this season. He better wear an off-kilter hat.

Its Fearlessness

Kareem Said.
Still of Kareem Said. From the Internet Movie Database.

“I am black, I am a Muslim, and I am a man. And sometimes those three things, they war with each other.”-Episode 3.4

Oz was fearless in many capacities, not just it’s ability to be graphic, but also in how certain characters are presented. Muslims make up a large group in Oz, and they are portrayed in a way unlike any other TV show from this era. In a novel idea, they are shown as people rather than just terrorists. In fact, the Muslim group is by far the most peaceful subsection of Oz’s population, and they openly discuss their religion in relation to their circumstances in life. They are actual characters. Similarly, a consensual gay relationship occur between two main characters, and their relationship is handled like any man/woman relationship would have been. Oz was lauded for that depiction during its run, and I feel like it should be for its treatment of Muslims as well. I don’t want to call making actual characters of non-white/christian/heterosexual people “brave”, but what Oz did was at least better than what other TV shows of the time were doing.

Perhaps the most fearless thing a show can do is kill off main characters. You can see the fan outrage that happens whenever a contemporary show like Game of Thrones kills off main characters, and Oz came on before it became a thing to expect from prestige dramas. From the first episode, it is made clear that no character in Oz is safe. People you expect to live die, and those you expect to die…usually die actually. Since the characters are good enough to actually care about, nearly every death is emotional. While Oz is fearless as far as how people die and how often, the kicker to make it effective is that they’re characters that are important to the show.

Its Flaws

“See, we are all of us bad men, even you. I know you have come to destroy me.” “Simon, I don’t want to destroy you. I want to help you change.” “That is what would destroy me.”-Episode 4.8

Oz is not a perfect TV show. To be fair there hasn’t really been an absolute perfect TV show, since there’s so much more material to be made than other art forms. The Wire probably came the closest, but that’s a subject for another time. Oz sometimes had really odd or stupid storylines, especially in the 2nd and 5th seasons. The writers were smart enough to cut those storylines off and take their losses before they submarined the show, but still every now and then something absolutely ridiculous happened in Oz. The amount of killings that happen in Oz’s run seem a little excessive too. If a real life prison had that many people killed, something about the prison would have been changed. This isn’t a big deal, as other TV shows kill off an inordinate amount of people relative to how many they could realistically get away with, and Oz isn’t nearly as bad as a show like Sons of Anarchy is at this. The most dated thing about Oz is that it constantly has flashbacks to earlier episodes. This is perhaps because of the time, when show runners weren’t sure how long an audience could remember plot lines, but it affects the flow of the episode. Later shows don’t do this, but Oz did, right up to the finale. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t the worst thing, but its annoying nonetheless.

Random Thoughts

Ryan O'Reily.
Still of Ryan O’Reily. From the Internet Movie Database.

“Ryan O’Reily. Vehicular manslaughter, reckless endangerment, possession of controlled substances, possession of a deadly weapon, violation of parole. That’s an amazing list of crimes.” “Well, you know, I applied myself.”-Episode 2.1

  • I feel like it’s about time for Oz to come back. For my money, it could’ve continued forever. I mean, we still have prisons. We still have social problems. Race is still an issue in America. The ways television has changed since Oz got off the air would only help I feel. Oz would probably have more money to work with.
  • A cool thing about Oz is that very random directors would direct episodes, sometimes they were well-known actors. Kathy Bates and Steve Buscemi directed episodes, and its interesting to watch their directing style.
  • One of my favorite aspects of Oz is that it is filmed in a pseudo-documentary style, but often had fantastical plot lines. It isn’t exactly a show about the supernatural, but they prance around the corners of it often.  This dichotomy made it very interesting visually.
  • Did you know that Oz’s soundtrack reached #42 on the Billboard 200 chart? And went to #8 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart? The early 2000’s were a strange time.
  • When I was watching the Oscars, I had a friend who couldn’t place where he knew J.K. Simmons from. He hadn’t seen Whiplash, so the next obvious choice was that he knew him from the Sam Raimi Spiderman movies. Nope. Oz? Nope. Juno? The Closer? Not even a little bit. He took a minute, looked him up, and realized he knew him from the his State Farm commercials. I mean, they were pretty good commercials.

Oz was an incredible show. It should’ve gotten more praise than it did, and it should be remembered better than it is. Hopefully it’ll get a critical reevaluation sometime. Perhaps that’s underway now, as J.K. Simmons winning an Oscar has people returning to Oz and realizing how great it was. After all, that’s the reason I wrote this.


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