Our reviews of Oz: The Complete Third Season (published April 13th, 2004), Oz: The Complete Fourth Season (published July 20th, 2005), Oz: The Complete Fifth Season (published August 3rd, 2005), and Oz: The Complete Sixth Season (published September 5th, 2006) are also available.
OZ!…That's the name on the street for the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary
Is there a place more devoid of potential entertainment value than a prison? Starting from the premise that all involved in its operation, from the criminals to the hacks, are individuals crawling around in and between the very tale end of acceptable social behavior to reality rife with rape, racism, and recidivism, it's hard to imagine mining anything remotely enjoyable or evocative out of the setting. And yet many have tried, from the classic escape film (Escape from Alcatraz, Breakout) to the truly insipid self-righteous preachathon (Lock Up, An Innocent Man). About the only successful fusion of jail with jocularity is the immensely popular and critically lauded adaptation of Stephen King's winning novella, The Shawshank Redemption, and even then it concentrates more on the human spirit and compassion than on vicious soap-inside-towel beatings in the weight room. Back before HBO had Tony and his goombah gang of Sopranos or the comatose morticians as symbols in Six Feet Under, the network approached Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson about reworking the penal genre angle. They devised a counterattack to their respected NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street, showing not only that crime does not pay, but it hurts like a mofo as well. Such is life in the big house, the joint, or the pokey. Such is life in Oz.
Facts of the Case
Oz is a strange amalgamation and concentration of the one-hour drama into the nighttime soap opera format with a liberal sprinkling of multi-part serial. Each season contains one or two main story arcs played out over the course of, on average, eight episodes. Then there are individual dramas and incidents isolated to the one-hour format itself. And still there are larger, broader canvases, created and controlled to slowly play out successfully and completely from day one to the final episode. This can make starting at the beginning of season two frustratingly complex. As a form of criminal Cliff's Notes, here is what happened "last season" on Oz.
The name of the series is derived from the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary located near an unnamed northern urban metropolis. Inside Oswald, or "Oz" as it's known, is the Emerald City Experimental Unit (also called "EM" City). Founded under the principles that treating prisoners humanely will result in successful rehabilitation, such commonplace problems as rampant overcrowding or a lack of services do not exist in "EM" City. Prisoners are given luxuries like access to computers, cable television, and mandatory psychological and drug counseling. All cells have glass walls and there is the constant presence of guards. This does not mean that Emerald City is filled with only good little boys and behavior. Far from it. Over the course of season one, the following issues have arisen which hold over and influence season two:
• Tensions have flared up at Emerald City, resulting in a riot that saw several inmates and a couple of hostages killed by a combination of the National Guard, S.O.R.T teams, and the prisoners themselves.
• Said (pronounced "Saa-heed), an intelligent Muslim activist, has risen to power among the prisoners as their primary political and legal mouthpiece.
• Nino Schibetta, the leader of the Mafia contingent within Oz, has been murdered, having had ground glass placed in his food over the course of many weeks by rival gangs. His son is now in Oz, vowing revenge.
• Tobias Beecher, an alcoholic lawyer incarcerated for killing a young girl while driving under the influence, has been raped, abused, and branded as "prag" (property) by the Aryan nation leader Vern Schillinger. This begins an ongoing and continuous battle of violent retaliation between the two convicts.
• McManus, the founder of the experimental Emerald City section of Oz, has had an ongoing sexual relationship with Correctional Officer Diane Whittlesey. Just prior to the riot, it had grown more serious.
In season two, the following new storylines are explored:
"Losing Your Appeal"
"Escape from Oz"
Oz is a hard show to get a handle on. It throws its outlandish hyper-violence and sexual depravity at you in an upfront manner that would completely unnerve the average viewer. The common folk of homespun America cannot possibly be ready of stories tinged with gang rape, homosexual love, masturbation, drug abuse, and humiliation by defecation or urination, all told in a graphic, no holds and censorship barred visual feast of full frontal male nudity and gruesome bloodletting. True, the performers are captivating and the storylines properly dramatic (sometimes moving over into 'melo's neighborhood), but as a whole, the characters are quite unsympathetic and occasional attempts to make them more "likeable" usually ring hallow or hackneyed. A lying, Irish piece of filth like Ryan O'Reily is not going to be humanized to viewers by a brush with terminal illness, especially when saddled with an unlikely (though medically possible) case of breast cancer. A good-for-nothing Mafia douchebag like Peter Schibetta doesn't warrant a lot of compassion, no matter what happened to his daddy, or what happens to him. His self-important posturing simply adds more fuel to the fuggetabout-him fire. Tom Fontana, the show's co-creator and chief writer, has claimed that it is not his job to make the characters likeable. All he hopes is that they are compelling.
And this is where Oz either succeeds or fails most of the time. It's a rarity when a show has to rely on its razor sharp directing and subtle, compelling acting to get away with the convoluted storylines and sometimes downright unreal circumstances it wants to toss out to viewers. While based in the grim reality of life behind bars, some of the events occurring in "EM" City move beyond the abnormal and into downright surrealism. The writing is indeed some of the best in television (even if you consider the unheard of amount of slang and swearing incorporated into it). And you do find yourself interested in whether certain characters will find some hope or whether others will get their comeuppance. Yet without someone clear-cut to root for (even everyman Beecher is turned by actor Lee Tergensen into something of a pathetic yet psychotic retch, able to move easily from high profile attorney to borderline deranged drug addict in the course of 55 minutes), it can be a difficult show to identify with. Everyone in Oz is flawed, corrupt (on some level), and broken by a social order than demands justice, but actually cares more about punishment and revenge. Oz never forgets to work in social commentary and criticism. Many people believe that prison is a microcosm of society at large. Oz, the TV series, personifies this concept brilliantly.
Oz is not a discussion of good vs. evil or what turns men into anti-social murderers and maniacs. It is about gradients of wickedness, from the outright to the subtle and subjective. On the extreme side there is Vern Schillinger, a twisted psychotic bulldog that uses his racial hatred as fuel for his violent temper and treatment of his fellow inmates. Likewise, Simon Adebisi, his polar and color opposite, is a drug addled African animal that sees carnage and rape as a way of settling even the most minor vendettas. They, along with the Italians and the Latinos, set the standard for what society usually sees as its major causes of crime: hatred, racketeering, drugs, and disenfranchisement. But even characters that seem basically decent hide fatal, felonious flaws. For all the good he does in Oz, working within the system for change, Kareem Said is really a selfish, self-centered egotist, hoping that his irritating instigating wins him more personal battles and praise than victories for the rest of the prison population. And then there is Tobias Beecher, the deluded, debased professional who travels through "EM" City like a confused criminal Candide, experiencing the worst that prison life has to offer and then made to suffer some more. His actions, either in retaliation or denial, speak volumes for his nature as an individual. He may not seem inherently evil like the others, but deep down inside lays a black pool of primal pain that brings out his violent human instincts. Even the Christians here are killers and molesters.
Individually, the episodes in Oz are somewhat mixed. They are never boring or redundant, but on occasion, they can miss the mark by introducing a strange storyline or an overly pat resolution. As the opener for the second season as well as a wrap-up of the previous series final cliffhanger episode, "The Tip" does a good job of resolving issues while expanding the canvas of the show. Charles S. Dutton is fine as the independent investigator (a law school dean), and the mystery of who killed inmate Scott Ross is handled precisely, the eventual resolution never telegraphed. "Ancient Tribes" continues the good fortunes, showing a desire on the part of the creators to shake up the premise and its players, experimenting with the dynamics involved in prison life. The episode uses the notion of placing the gangs together to create an intense "us vs. them" dynamic which strengthens the bonds within the individual groups and heightens the mystique of the leaders, giving them what seems like real power. By episode three, "Great Men," we meet some of those irritating convolutions. It seems way too coincidental that the Warden's daughter would be raped by someone that the inmates in Oz would know. O'Reily's breast cancer scare is also awkward and jarring, since his character was simply healthy one day (and all last season) and lactating blood the next. While it is a viable real life disease for men, it seems utilized only to set up the unrequited love for Dr. Nathan and the eventually killing of her husband by O'Reily's brother Cyril.
Thankfully, in the next episode, "Losing Your Appeal," we are introduced to Chris Meloni as Chris Keller, a character whose love affair with Beecher will mark a watershed moment in the history of Oz and television. His hate/mostly all out passion for cellmate Beecher will grow into one of the few examples of deep, consuming homosexual love ever attempted on the small screen, let alone shown within the confines of American entertainment. The true emotional chemistry between the actors and the characters set the foundation for a taboo busting future between the two lost and damaged souls. But then again, "Family Bizness" steps in and offers more of the soap opera-ish pap that sometimes restricts the show. While the confrontation with the Governor at the prisoner's graduation is refreshing, as is Glynn's resolution of his family "issue" with Schibetta, the final act, which tosses at us the suicide of Beecher's wife and Cyril, the "slow" brother is just a little too much. As is the opening act of "Strange Bedfellows." The whole L.L. Cool J as the Governor's supposed crack dealer storyline doesn't pay off, either narratively or for the rap star. But after he's gone, the episode kicks into high gear as we reach the peak of the season's roller coaster and are strapped in for the final wild ride. The Keller/Beecher love story progresses nicely, and the twists and turns in the gang power struggle resonate and build a wonderful amount of suspense and intrigue. "Animal Farm"'s inclusion of Nazi guard/Aryan gang sympathizer Karl Metzger really invigorates the series, as does the introduction of Nappa, the old school Mafioso sent to "EM" City to regain the mob's fallen position. By "Escape from Oz," the final episode of the season, a strange thing has happened. We are not provided with a cliffhanger or who done it, but instead the creators simply let several storylines play out to their ultimate conclusion. Because of the way everything has been set up in previous outings, the ending crackles with energy and creates a wonderful setup for season three.
Beyond the writing, one of the most consistently astonishing things about Oz is its acting. The performers find the right note between detached boredom (standard operating procedure in prison) and angry violence. Even the non-criminal roles are handled with the proper world-weary resolve and up hill battle fatigue. Of special note are J.K. Simmons, who seems to expand to immense, dangerous proportions in his portrayal of Nazi Vern Schillinger, and Terry Kinney as McManus, the bureaucrat slowly unraveling under the pressure of his own personal Frankenstein. British actor Eammon Walker is hissably self righteous as the needs-to-be-knocked-down-a-notch Said (never once does his near-Cockney speaking voice slip into the static, preachy Said speech pattern) and Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje's laid back psycho Adebisi is one of the best portrayals of pure, calculated evil in the show (besides, no one wears a hat like Simon). The entire ensemble, from old stars Rita Moreno and Ernie Hudson to new faces Edie Falco and Chris Meloni, are wonderful. They make the otherwise insufferable ell of Oz seem compelling. They carry the difficult to watch storylines and unrelenting blackness of tone onto their talented shoulders and succeed in creating a drama that works and a show that practically turns obsessive in its audience's desire to follow along. Occasional frustrations aside, Oz is powerful television.
Overall, HBO does a decent, if decidedly skimpy job in how it presents Oz on DVD. The first season set had a couple of selected commentaries and a publicity short. All we get here are a five-minute made for the pay channel puff piece that is too cursory to have impact, and a substantially edited round table discussion of the show (while it was in its first season) at the Museum of Television and Radio Broadcasting. This featurette is probably the most frustrating, since it appears in a heavily truncated version. Jarring jump cuts, edits that seem to remove random quotes from the dialogue between actors, creators, and audience and sound bites are merely slapped together ad hoc. It is interesting to hear how many times Fontana "reimagined" Oz as it went before the camera, and stories about supervising producer Bridget Potter's visits to maximum security prisons are also fascinating. But when you are subjected to backslapping and glad-handing about how good the writing is or how seriously the performers take their roles, it all grows tired. Visually, the show is shot in a full screen film presentation, and the transfer suffers occasionally from compression. Since many of the color schemes used are dark or muted, watching those gray pixels flash can be distracting. Aurally, Oz sounds great. The environment of tension and dread is constantly underscored with ambient "buzzing" and eerie animal and industrial sounds. Oz is one of the few shows where the soundtrack is more important than the rather stale musical score. In Dolby Digital 5.1, it comes together wonderfully in an immersive, atmospheric mix.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is one part of Oz that really does not work. Not at all. Augustus Hill, our resident handicapped hard case, "narrates" each episode with a mixture of homespun wisdom, dry statistical facts, and philosophical poetic bullspit. He is the classic Greek chorus, since there is no doubt ever that he is commenting on the real (or potential) action in an episode. And it grows incredibly annoying at times, since the remarks are so obvious as to make you slap your head and shout "duh!" Now, it is understandable that if one is trying to emulate the tragedies of ancient theater and/or provide the audience with a vocal window into a world they have no working knowledge of, a wheelchair bound wiseass seems like a clever and politically correct way of over baiting the hook. But to have some paralyzed poet constantly interrupting an intense scene of violence with some new age musings is dramatically destructive. It's not that Hill has nothing to say, he just has nothing substantial to add.
In the end, Oz will probably be remembered more for its full frontal male nudity, complicated and deeply sexual man-on-man relationship between Beecher and Keller, or its brazen graphic violence than for the mark it made on television or the dramatic narrative. After all, it's difficult still, after watching an entire season worth of episodes on DVD, to imagine that anyone would be curious or compelled to give this hyper-realistic prison Peyton Place a whirl. The subject matter is so far outside the mainstream and beyond the realm of taboo that it almost requires a new word or redefinition of others to be properly described. While there have been cop shows that pushed the envelope regarding nudity or language and law enforcement dramas that have reinvented the courtroom confrontation, Oz is destined to stand alone, to be seen as a singular attempt to bring the life of convicts to the small screen in all its dirty, depressing and hellish glory. Above all else, Oz the series, and Oz: The Complete Second Season on DVD, finally addresses the notion of the penitentiary as a place where viewing pleasure can be found. Oz is an excellent TV drama. It's just not always a pleasant experience.
The Court finds Oz: The Complete Second Season not guilty and it is free to go. The cast is remanded back to "EM" City since they are so completely realistic in their portrayal of prisoners and their keepers.
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