Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/07/2002.
Oz eventually ran to six complete seasons. All of them are available on DVD in the US, and they're still slowly being released in the UK (season 5 hit the shops on June 30th 2008).
FUCK is a four letter word.
RAPE is a four letter word.
WIFE is a four letter word.
So is LOVE.
FUCK is a curse.
So is LOVE.
I'm sitting in a New Orleans hotel room in 1997, and I can't quite believe what's coming out of the TV.
So far, I've visited the United States five times: but Summer 1997 was the first. And coming as I do from a country where we're known for having The Least Worst Television In The World, I was well prepared for the crapness of American TV. Overrun with ad breaks, formatted to remove all spontaneity, and regulated up the wazoo to prevent any sex, violence, language or anything else of interest appearing. When the biggest controversy on American TV appears to have been the brief appearance of Dennis Franz's naked arse on NYPD Blue, you know that us hardened Brits aren't likely to be shocked by anything.
Until a black man in a wheelchair started shouting profane poetry at me.
I'd seen adverts for Oz in the papers during the few days I'd been in the Big Easy: its pilot episode had premiered the previous week. All the standard buzzwords were being bandied around in the review pullquotes: edgy, challenging, dark, yadda yadda yadda. But what really caught my eye was the information that this was the new show from the makers of Homicide: Life On The Street, Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson. Homicide holds a special place in the hearts of a certain type of television viewer: a network cop show that really did deserve all those buzzwords thrown at it. Driven by character rather than action, visually and dramatically experimental, unafraid to show the police failing to solve crimes. It survived seven seasons of weak ratings almost entirely because of the good will of NBC's boss, who was a fan: and the people who loved this show really loved it, so that was enough to keep it on the air. With a legacy like that, it would be interesting to see how this creative team worked in the less restrictive atmosphere of HBO.
Guess we found out.
Oz is pretty much Tom Fontana's baby, with Levinson taking a back seat on the production. Unusually for an American series, Fontana takes an incredibly upfront role in the writing, being the sole credited writer on nearly every episode and co-writer on the rest. (It's even his arm which has the show's logo tattooed onto it in the opening credits.) As a result, it's got a coherence and drive that most team-built shows don't have. The freedom of a cable operation like HBO means that the normal network restrictions don't apply for the most part, and this show pushes the boundaries of what's acceptable over and over again. It takes all the key flashpoints of American society today - law and order, drugs, sex, race, religion, you name it - puts them all in a big pile, douses them with petrol and throws in a lighted match. This is not comfort viewing by any stretch of the imagination, but it's compulsive as hell.
Oz - as that man in the wheelchair, Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), tells us in the pilot episode - is the common name for the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary, a particularly nasty prison in a particularly nasty unnamed state. Within this environment, Tim McManus (Terry Kinney) has a dream: he runs a special unit within the prison known as Emerald City, in which a more humane approach to prisoner management is attempted. In most other shows, this would be the story of his triumph over adversity, and Em City would succeed despite numerous setbacks. Here, it's made clear from the start that McManus is a well-meaning idiot, possibly even more dangerous than the lifers and long-term inmates he's nominally in charge of. (And it could have all been so different. According to Fontana, the original plan was to feature a medium security prison, and call the show Club Med.)
The battle lines are not as cleanly drawn as you'd expect, with bad prisoners and good prison staff. McManus probably wouldn't have survived for as long as he has without the team working with him, most notably prison warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson), almost the stereotype of the strong black man in charge but with a few skeletons in his own closet. There's also the prison chaplain Father Mukada (B.D. Wong) and counsellor Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno), who take a hard-headed and practical approach to the spiritual welfare of the inmates. But the guards are a motley bunch, and will frequently work with the prisoners to further their own ends. Even the most sympathetic of them, Diane Willesey (Edie Falco), has been pushed into dodgy dealings to make ends meet.
And then, of course, there are the prisoners. Oz took the traditional route of opening the pilot episode with the arrival of a new inmate, and using his introduction to prison life as a way into the environment for the viewer. Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) is the perfect choice, a lawyer who through one simple mistake - driving drunk - is now serving time for the death of a child. As he spends his first day being bullied by his sponsor Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda) and almost raped by his cellmate Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), he desperately tries to find someone who he can call a friend. Rewatching the first episode again this far down the line, it's terrifying to watch the scene where he pathetically accepts the offer of friendship from Vern Schillinger (JK Simmons). If there's a key conflict that's resonated throughout the five years of Oz so far, it's the ever-escalating war of attrition between Schillinger and Beecher: and if there's a character arc that's resonated more than any other during that time, it's the way that Beecher has descended from a decent man to one of the most vicious animals within the prison.
Schillinger runs the Aryan Brotherhood within Oz, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is one of a whole array of tribal splits within the prison. The Nazis, the Italians, the Latinos, the gays: everyone's taking sides. But quickly it becomes apparent that the most interesting characters are the ones who don't fit into one of the obvious tribes, or will happily play them off against each other. There's the arch manipulator Ryan O'Reilly (Dean Winters), possibly the cause of more death in the prison than anyone else, although he always makes sure his own hands are never dirty. There's the old lifer Bob Rebadow (George Morfogen), who would be a perfectly loveable chap if it wasn't for his frequent visits from God. There's the charismatic Muslim leader Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker), whose attempts to organise people are continually foiled. And presiding over it all is the Greek chorus of Augustus Hill, who doesn't generally get involved with the main story. (Though curiously, his close relationship with the viewer means that when he does get involved, we're more fearful for his life than we are with the other prisoners...)
The first series of Oz was recently released on video and DVD, giving me a chance to compare the current run of the show with its early days. The pilot has the format pretty much in place from the beginning. There's a highly inventive visual style, borne of the constraints of having virtually the whole show take place inside a single building. The only time we get to see the outside world is in the massively stylised flashback sequences that introduce each new prisoner - as these always depict the crimes that got them convicted, they have the sneaky effect of making us want to get back inside the relative safety of the prison. Best of all, Fontana gleefully announces that all bets are off at the climax of the first episode: having got us emotionally involved with the lives of a number of the inmates, he has one of them brutally beaten and burned to death. From that point on, the show works to the key rule of horror as documented by critic Joe Bob Briggs around the time of Evil Dead: Anyone Can Die At Any Moment.
One interesting point arising from Fontana's commentary on the DVD is an insight into how he writes the show. He plots a season by one character arc at a time, writing all of Beecher's scenes, then Said's, and so on. He then cuts them up and spreads them across the duration of an eight-episode season, using Augustus Hill's narration to impose an overall theme on each individual episode. In the early days this approach had its problems: notably in season two, which ended up being seven episodes of build-up culminating in a season finale that's the single most gruelling hour of television I can ever recall watching, consisting of nine or ten increasingly apocalyptic climaxes in a row. Nowadays, it has to be said, the show doesn't run to such an obvious formula, though the minute attention to structure is still there. The first season climaxed in a ferocious prison riot: looking back, it was being set up from episode one, which you'd expect. But three seasons on, the impact of what happened that night is still reverberating through the plot.
The emphasis on character pays off, as without it Oz would be little more than a weekly parade of atrocities. Everyone is skilully drawn, courtesy of a cast of relative unknowns, some of whom are regulars from earlier Fontana shows like Homicide or St Elsewhere. (It gets to the point where you feel incredibly possessive about the actors, and relish any subsequent appearances they make in other environments, from Edie Falco's post-Oz triumph in The Sopranos to JK Simmons' authentic J Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man.) When the characters are good, there's a pleasure to be taken from Said's unswerving faith or Rebadow's touching optimism. And when they're bad... well, it's difficult to justify the pleasure I get from seeing Schillinger and Adebisi cause appalling havoc to friends and foes alike, but it's fabulous to watch.
And amid all the grimness, there's a lot of humour. There has to be: sixty minutes a week of unrelenting brutality would be impossible to watch. But the inmates have to relax too, whether it's by watching the large-breasted children's TV host Miss Sally ("lucky fuckin' puppets") or plotting ludicrous schemes for getting out. And there are some gloriously dark laughs to be had in the most unlikely places: for example, the cannibal prisoner Donald Groves (Sean Whitesell). The sequence where he turns to Catholicism - not through any particular hope of redemption, more because he's heard what happens to the Communion host during transubstantiation - is a sick humour classic.
Oz spent a few years being buried in post-midnight slots in the UK, but things seem to be getting better. Recently episodes have been broadcast first on the digital channel E4, then terrestrially repeated on Channel 4: and the radical approach of showing it while people are awake appears to be paying off in terms of popularity. As mentioned earlier, videos of season 1 are available for latecomers, with more to follow soon. Fontana has said that season 6 - scheduled to premiere on HBO in 2003 - will be the last one, so catch up while you can. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll get scared, and you'll end up never wanting to commit a crime ever if these are the consequences. I know I certainly wouldn't. Being a monkey, and all.
[A quick warning before we do this. Oz is an ongoing TV show, and at the time of writing UK viewers are a season or two behind those in the States. Pretty much every site listed here has been written for an American audience, and assumes that they're familiar with the events of the first five seasons of the show. So UK Oz fans should be warned: you may find out more than you want to know about forthcoming events if you visit these sites. I know I certainly did. Grrr.]
Oz has a rather fine official site courtesy of the good people at HBO. There's a particularly impressive virtual reality section which allows you to walk through a 3-D computer model of the entire prison. You also get biographies, episode summaries and details of when HBO are showing it. Which is more than those lazy buggers at Channel 4 and E4 do in the UK.
Tom Fontana, creator of the show, has his own website where he discusses his future projects and shows off a small collection of scripts from older ones. There's also an official site for The Levinson/Fontana Company which includes an Oz page, though its proud boast of "a new season in 2001" seems to indicate they don't update it that often. For an opposing view, check out Why We Hate Tom Fontana, maintained by an angry mob of Homicide fans who don't like what he did to that show in its later years.
Cellblock 5 is an Oz fansite best known for its huge archive of fanfiction. The genre we queasily know as 'slash fiction' is especially well represented here, with all your favourite characters coming together in every sexual permutation you can imagine. Citizens Against Bad Slash takes the idea a stage further by looking at the sexual fan fiction that's in circulation on the internet, and assessing it for literary value. There's a small selection of Oz slash, including an extraordinary attempt at a crossover with Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you'd ever wondered how Xander Harris would react to being anally raped by Vern Schillinger, then you can read the story and the criticism of it here. "SHOW DON'T TELL! SHOW DON'T TELL!" My thoughts exactly.
Television Without Pity, home of the most hilariously snotty TV critics on the Internet, amusing dissect every episode of Oz for your reading pleasure: and do it in so much detail that you know they're fans really.
alt.tv.oz (accessible via the Google Usenet Archive) is the newsgroup dedicated to the show, and probably an even bigger source of potential plot spoilers than anywhere else mentioned here. Though in between seasons they find other things to talk about, including the exchange of nude shots of the cast. (While you're in Google, check out the list of fan sites and official sites dedicated to Oz cast members, some of which may even have nude shots on them too.)
Film Unlimited is probably the best place on the net for UK viewers to discuss the show, on its dedicated Oz thread [dead link]. (You'll need to register if you want to join in yourself.) A small but perfectly formed collection of fans - and yes, I'm one of them - swap opinions on a variety of Oz related topics. If you want to know why there's a picture of a charred corpse further up this page, you'll find out here.
Amazon will sell you the usual collection of Oz stuff [see also links below]. And if the Season 1 DVD or VHS set don't appeal, how about a J Jonah Jameson action figure from the Spider-Man movie? Given that actor JK Simmons also plays Nazi bum rapist Schillinger on Oz, the toy's promise of "fist-pounding action" is a little disturbing. It'll be more than your Spider Sense tingling once he's finished with you, Spidey.
The Oz Prison Bitch Name Generator is one of those name generation programs that swamped the web a while back: type in your real name, and it'll use an algorithm to tell you what you'd be called in the slammer. For example, if you put Spank The Monkey in there, you get back Ball Boy. It could be worse: try a View Source on the page to see what I mean.