A few things happen after you spend a couple of months busting through the 54 episodes of HBO’s prison-drama Oz. First of all, everything looks white. That is, after six seasons of a show showcasing diverse racial, ethnic and religious makeup, every other show out there just looks… too white.
It probably is.
And a second thing happens. You walk away mad. Really mad. Because the American prison system is broken.
The entire American justice system has serious problems, there’s no arguing that. But the prison system itself is a mess, full stop. Draconian legislation like the Three Strikes laws first enacted in Washington D.C. and California were very popular in the early-to-mid 1990s; 23 more states had enacted similar laws within a few years.
Habitual offender laws like Three Strikes meant that prisoners can receive sentences out of proportion for their crimes, such as life for shoplifting. Mental health laws, meanwhile, were subjected to severe criticism in the aftermath of John Hinkley’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981; after Hinkley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, Congress and many states wrote laws shifting the burden of proof of insanity to the defense, and three states abolished the insanity defense altogether. Mental health facilities, penal and otherwise, lost funding, and many across the country were shut down over the next two decades. Meaning, all those people who'd ordinarily have gone into mental health facilities were sent to prison instead. Other shifts in penal laws across the 1980s and 1990s resulted in dramatically increases in prison populations across the board, coinciding with an upswing in death sentences, which began rising in the late 1970s, took off in 1981, and peaked in 1997.
I don’t mean to start piling my soapboxes up. What I’m trying to do is provide a little context for Tom Fontana’s HBO series Oz, a show that’s both timeless and a undeniable product of its time. 1997 was a bad year to be a prisoner in America.
Oz premiered in 1997, the year those death sentences peaked. It was the first hour-long show HBO ever broadcast. Being a subscription-only cable channel, HBO provided its shows a freedom other television channels couldn’t: the freedom to air content that included swearing, nudity, graphic violence, sex, rape, and homosexuality. Oz took full advantage of that freedom to explore America’s broken penal system from the inside, considering questions of conscience and consciousness, of religion and of faith, of desire and addiction, of anger and frustration, of punishment and rehabilitation, hope and despair, power and powerlessness, of survival, of life, of love, of death.
Deep within the decrepit heart of the Oswald State Correctional Facility – aka Oz – lies Emerald City, an experimental cell-block run by bleeding-heart liberal Tim McManus (Terry Kinney). McManus, who experienced the infamous Attica riot as a child, honestly believes prison can be used not just to punish, but to rehabilitate even the worst criminals. (Not a popular sentiment in the 1990s.) And so he takes them all on, unrepentant scumbag after homicidal lunatic after maladjusted ne'er-do-well, and tries to make them follow rules and play nice in his huge, clean, glassed-in prison-block.
It goes about as well as you might expect.
Far and away, Oz’s greatest strength is its actors. Seriously. The actors were cast based not on their looks (apparently they wore no makeup in front of the camera besides fake tattoos), but rather their raw skill. Although there were regular problems with characterization on an episode-by-episode level, particularly later in the show’s run, the main characters were, for the most part, consistent and compelling. I mean, really – how do you make a racist, rapist lifer sympathetic? Somehow, JK Simmons did. And seriously, if you take nothing else from this review, take this: JK Simmons is a fucking fantastic actor. Even Luke Perry, in a brief stint as an evangelical preacher/convict, was pretty good. And those are words I never thought I’d write.
And the Oz writers made some courageous decisions. They killed main characters off. Regularly. In surprising, untelegraphed ways. THey also let characters live – characters who, on any other show, would have “deserved” to die. Characters on Oz are as likely to go unpunished for their bad deeds, as they are to get exactly what they don’t deserve when they try to do good.
Those problems with characterization, on an episode-by-episode level? They almost always boiled down to the same cause: in the storytelling on Oz, convenience and contrivance usually won out over continuity. If we’d watched Oz as it originally aired, over six years, perhaps I might not have found the contrivance as problematic. But we didn’t – we watched Oz over a couple of months. And while that highlighted the show’s many strengths, it also highlighted its weaknesses.
I loved Oz, but it’s not a perfect show. The narration is annoyingly mannered, never more so than during the show’s (otherwise stellar) first season. Oz's central stylistic conceit is that one of its characters also acts as its Greek chorus – paralyzed convict Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau) sits in a Perspex box, commenting on the action of the episode and the problems of society as a whole inbetween acts. I respect this as a device, and what Fontana was trying to do with it. Oz is a show with a message, and Fontana would be damned if you walked away without picking up on it. But it's also pretty tiresome. And really dated.
At its heart, Oz is a kind of soap-opera: a soap-opera that takes place within a plastic box, yes, but a soap none the less. People form friendships, fall in love, develop enmities, beat each other, rape each other, and kill each other. Some are better than others at surviving, and playing the game just well enough to make it through each day alive, each month, each year. Oz has a lot in common with Game of Thrones. Except, no dragons. Or scenery changes. Or women. And, in Oz, there’s no happy ending in sight; much like Game of Thrones, what light there is at the end of the tunnel is achingly distant and terribly dim.
In Oz, and on Oz, a change of heart or a change of mind will go at best unrecognized and at worst misunderstood. The character arcs in Oz revolve around that central conundrum; in a claustrophobic environment where no man can be an island, what does it mean to fall in love? To learn the meaning of kindness? And do these changes – infinitesimally tiny compared to the blood-spattered scrabble for daily survival – matter? Ultimately, Oz argues, they do.
1997 feels pretty distant these days. Death penalty sentences are down, and the Three Strikes law has been scaled back in California to reflect fifteen years' worth of criticism. But the prison system - and the legal system itself - has a long way to go. Oz is, in its criticisms, an artifact. As an example of what good writing, great acting, and network support can sustain, however, Oz is a masterpiece.