You’ve probably heard of HBO’s Oz, because in the nine years since it concluded, the name has become practically synonymous with jokes about dongs and prison rape. You know, because prison rape is so hilarious. But if you haven’t actually seen the series, I can assure you that it’s different than you probably envision it.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The party line that Oz is not for the squeamish or the easily offended is absolutely true. A character, sometimes several, dies violently in nearly every episode, and I only say “nearly” because my memory of each episode isn’t crystal clear. It’s also very coarse in that lovable HBO way; pretty much every actor on the show had no scruples with letting it all hang out, repeatedly; it’s one of the few instances on premium cable of female nudity being sharply in the minority.
But even my wife, who has a low threshold for violence — she opted out of watching Hostel or I Saw the Devil with me — has found herself drawn in by Oz. And it’s wholly because the show is insane — among the most bizarre series either of us has seen. In the cable/network parade of cop shows, medical dramas, and courtroom dramas, Oz theoretically fits into the less overexposed genre “prison drama,” but that’s reducing it to absurdity. When Oz ushered in the era of the HBO cable drama, there had been nothing like it on television, and there’s still been nothing like it since.
Oz tells the tale of Oswald State Penitentiary, a fictional maximum-security prison in an undisclosed state. Most of the storylines take place in an experimental cell block nicknamed “Emerald City,” the brainchild of ineffectual, hemorrhaging-heart liberal Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), the “man behind the curtain,” if you will. Em City is an open facility in which social and racial groups are tightly regulated but generally allowed to roam free. If this sounds like the worst idea any human being has ever had, you’re not far from the truth. McManus’ vision is compromised almost as a fact of life as prisoners deal and snort narcotics (referred to colloquially as “tits”), shank members of rival gangs, and commit horrifying acts of sexual violence — much of the time with near impunity, since almost the entire staff of correctional officers is corrupt.
The mismanagement perturbed me the first time I watched the show, when I viewed it as a traditional prison drama. But watching it a second time with my wife, who majored in religion and also has a keener eye for absurdity, turned out to be a boon for lively discussion of the show as a coherent thematic entity. Something she caught immediately that I’d never noticed before is that Oswald exists in a sort of warped hyper-reality, where time is immaterial and retribution is instantaneous. In the first season, the state lifts a longstanding moratorium on the death penalty; an Em City inmate who murdered a fellow prisoner is then tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed, all by the end of the episode. Murderous sociopath Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is frequently given control of the prison kitchen, with predictable results, and a faction of Aryans led by Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) runs the mail room, putting the prison’s flow of information into the hands of neo-Nazis.
Creator Tom Fontana was raised Catholic, and he deliberately centered the series on the religion’s foundational themes of retribution and redemption. Notable about Oz compared with other prison dramas — and with actual prisons — is that every inmate is 100 percent guilty; none of the storylines depict the plight of the wrongly accused, and each character is introduced with a flashback depicting the crime and outlaying the perp’s conviction and how long he’ll be spending in Purgatory. And it’s not just a thematic tic; literally the only religion that seems to be recognized by the facility is Catholicism, with Father Ray Mukada (B.D. Wong) acting as chaplain, and a nun, Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno), serving as drug counselor and psychiatrist. The only competing sect is a group of Muslim inmates led by convicted arsonist Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker), but they primarily serve the narrative purpose of exposing and exacerbating tension within McManus’ grand democratic vision.
And it’s this vision that throws Oz completely off the rails. McManus attempts to impose a degree of equality and democracy upon Em City in his push for reform, even establishing a “Senate” where representatives from each social and racial group can represent their needs and desires. But what turns this Greek democracy into a full-on Greek tragedy is the presence of — what else? — a Greek god, Governor James Devlin (Željko Ivanek). Early in the series, Devlin directly refers to himself as “Zeus” and tells McManus that he’d best step lightly lest he face the wrath of his thunderbolts. And he deploys these thunderbolts with impunity; elected on a platform of “No Perks for Prisoners,” he gradually strips the inmates of basic human needs such as conjugal visits and smoking, which are predictably replaced by rape and drug trafficking.
Presiding above it all is the show’s Greek chorus, Augustus Hill, an inmate in Em City who rarely stars in plots of his own but frequently breaks the fourth wall via surreal, theatrical interludes in which he lays out the theme of the episode. I used to feel that Hill detracted from the show, but he serves an important purpose — Fontana wrote him in as a means of delivering introspection in an environment where people keep their inner monologues to themselves, lest they face the consequences. Plus now that I’m less stupidly convinced that Oz is a documentary, I find that the monologues enhance the loose, freewheeling, dreamlike feel of the series in general.
What I’m trying to get at is that Oz has gained a reputation for being a prison drama about gay sex, but it casts a much wider net than that. And don’t get me wrong — the incredibly real romance that develops, almost exclusively out of loneliness, between inmates Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) and Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni) was revolutionary. But it’s really an “all things to all people” type show — even if you’re just a TV junkie, you’ll have a lot of fun playing “spot the actor,” particularly if you’re a fan of The Wire or Lost.
Whether or not you end up adoring or despising Oz is completely up in the air — I’ve had a really poor track record predicting this among my friends — but at least give it a shot, because I assure you there’s no place like it.