I only started watching Oz at the very end of the first series. I was visiting my chumnik M down in that there Lunnon, plotting all manner of naughtiness, and through the snow blizzard shone this dark hearted beast of a show, flickering and fuckering and cocksuckering out the tube, back in those pre-multichannel analogue days when Channel 4 (or to be more precise, 4Later) actually broadcasted worthwhile braincandy.
“Watch this,” said M, skin turning grey as the Guinness sank, the windows all locked tight and the air turning stale with smoke and central heating. “It’s fucking brutal.”
It was fucking brutal. The season finale was a big prison riot. Random people shanked. Bad things happened. It didn’t end on an upbeat note. M was right, and after this I stuck with Oz, through to the sixth and final season.
In a fashion similar to Tour Of Duty, Oz was a soap opera about the platonic (and not-so-platonic) love affairs, shifting alliances, and the struggle between good and evil within themselves of men in exceptional circumstances. Unlike TOD, there were no easy platitudes, no free rides, no white hats and black hats.
The set-up is simple: It’s a high-security gaol, Oswald State Correctional Facility (né Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary). Within that prison is an experimental unit, Em City, were manager McManus tries to imbue in the inmates a sense of community and belonging, and values of respect and responsibility. We meet the cons, old and new, and see how they rub along together in this goldfish bowl. All pretty same-old, same-old so far.
Except we’re not following the standard trope playbook here. This is not a triumph of the human spirit. This is not the plucky underdog winning in the end. This is tragedy. Dark and cold shit happens, and it’s inevitable. Men pursuing righteousness are laid low by their own hubris. Bad deeds do go unpunished, and good deeds do condemn their doers.
Oz first aired in 1997 on subscription channel HBO, as an hour-long, commercial-free show. The HBO model meant it did not have to rein in the language or the content to avoid pissing off advertisers, because there were no advertisers (something which paid off big time with the subsequent show The Sopranos). The producers certainly made good use of these creative freedoms.
The rhythm of the show jumps between staccato sequences of jokes without punchlines to long arcs of slow character development, all interweaved with sudden, and often meaningless, acts of extreme violence. Integral characters are brutalised, tortured, killed, without warning and without mercy. It’s disorientating, but compelling. You find yourself rooting for some serious nasty-arsed motherfuckers – and we know just how nasty they are because all the principal characters get little how-they-ended-up-here flashback sequences, and none of them were convicted of unlicensed flower-sniffing. Yet despite all this, you never lose sight of how the system of incarceration they endure now, and the society from which they have been removed, is in itself a destructive and coercive instrument of control and brutalisation. Good men are turned bad, and bad men are made worse. Ultimately Oz is a killing machine. A conveyor belt through the abbatoir.
Of course, many a fine idea has been ruined by letting loose fucking morons to do the legwork; fortunately that’s not something that’s happened here. Created and mostly written by Tom Fontana (he of the multiverse), the show is packed full of thoroughly convincing actors, many of them familiar to you from the various Law & Order shows (amongst other things), and many of them with strong stage backgrounds. There’s JK Simmons (Dr Skoda in L&O) as Vern Schillinger, the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in Em City; Harold Perrineau (Michael Dawson in Lost) as wheelchair-riding chorus Augustus Hill, Kirk Acevedo (Hector Salazar in L&O, Joe Toye in Band Of Brothers) as Latino inmate Miguel Alvarez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr Eko in Lost) as smacked-up Nigerian man mountain Adebisi, Lee Tergesen (L&O, Desperate Housewives and Wanted) as drinkdriving killer Tobias Beecher, Eamonn Walker (Justice, Unbreakable, The Bill) as Muslim imam Kareem Saïd… There’s even Ernie fucking Hudson on board, as warden Leo Glynn, and 50s/60s starlet Rita Moreno as prison shrink Sister Peter Marie. What more bang do you want for your buck?
Well, as well as all them, plus a revolving door policy on high-quality bit-parts (Eric Roberts turns in a career-best performance as a whacked-out serial killer… Yes, that Eric fucking Roberts), you also get Dean Winters as Ryan O’Reily, the resident Irish hoodlum. O’Reily is one of the greatest TV characters of all time – conniving, plotting, merciless, compassionate, caring, violent, witty, often all in the same scene – who jumps between the ever-shifting tectonic plates of inter-group rivalry within Oz. Machiavellian is a word too often thrown around, all too often inappropriately; but O’Reily is a prince of princes, constantly playing off both ends against the middle, and lingering long enough to make a profit off the blood of all (virtually every death in the first season is attributable to him).
So round we come, back to HonkWatch. Midway through season two, O’Reily discovers he has breast cancer. He has surgery and undergoes chemotherapy. He blows chunks. Peas appear to be involved. Enjoy. (And if you’ve never seen Oz, hunt it down and do so.)