Shows You Should Be Watching Number 3: Oz
This is sort of an odd show to be doing a “Shows you should be watching” on since it’s not on TV at the moment, it finished it’s 6 year run on HBO back in 2003, and even when it was shown on UK TV it was hidden away at 2am in the morning on Channel 4.
But there’s a reason I write about it now: I just went to see Juno. It’s a wonderful film and the cast are almost all from TV shows I love: The West Wing, Arrested Development, Alias (okay maybe not ‘love’ for that one) and of course Juno’s father is Oz’s J K Simmons (all this was nearly as exciting as seeing the actor Kevin Eldon show up in a non-speaking 3-second cameo in last week’s Ashes to Ashes).
Now if you ever read the internets, you might find a debate that often rages is that of evilest TV villian. Often such debates will garner hundreds of comments and much argueing, all of it from people who have never watched Oz. Because those who have know that Simmons’ Vern Schillinger is TV’s evilest, and quite possibly greatest, villian.
If you’ve never heard of Oz the premise is fairly straightforward: prison drama. The premise is it’s a low-security wing of a high security prison, a social experiment that is meant to emphasize rehabilitation and as such is carefully controlled so each racial group is balenced in numbers so non has the upper hand. The prisoners get more freedom than they would normally get, and hence comes drama.
Oz was significant as it was one of HBO’s first forays into independant drama, and it led the way for the likes of The Sopranos and Deadwood, and had much in common with it’s successors, notably that the episodes followed on from each other in a serial fashion, though what Oz did differently was aim for a thematic throughline to each episode, often made clear to the viewer through the use of 4th-wall breaking narration from one of the characters. Each episode would advance a number of sub-plots, all tied together in a particular way. Oftentimes this would even lead the viewer to predict what was coming in certain plot threads, and of course, it was always something horrible.
See, unlike other shows I talk about, this one I really don’t reccommend unreservedly. Oz is a hard show. It’s bleak, it’s nasty and it’s not for everyone. This is a show that will have such awful things happen to it’s characters you’ll feel bad for them even though they’re serial rapists or murderers. There’s no moral get out clause for the viewer of “well they’re criminals, they deserve it” – yes, in Oz bad things happen to bad people. But bad things happen to good people like the nurse or the warden too. And to Tobias Beecher. Lee Tergeson’s Beecher is very much our point-of-view character. He enters Oz as the series starts and learns about it as we do. He’s the most sympathetic of the inmates, being guilty ‘only’ of drink-driving and killing a young girl. He ends up inmates with Simmons’ Aryan Brotherhood leader Schillinger and faces continual rape, degradation and abuse, until he snaps. In many ways the entire show is driven by the confrontations between these two that result in both of them losing everything they hold dear. Beecher is in many ways the cautionary tale: a man who just wanted to serve out his sentance and beat his alcholism being turned into a murderous beast by the system, and by Schillinger.
There’s a good chance that Oz is the single most disturbing TV show ever made, it’s not a pleasant watch by any means, but it’s a truly brilliant piece of a drama, along with being an interesting study on race relations, and a critique of the prison and justice system. It’s certainly one of my top 5 TV shows ever. If you reckon you have the stomach for it do check it out, the first season is only ten english pounds at Amazon and it really is a genuine lost gem of television, even though without it the likes of Six Feet Under and The Sopranos wouldn’t exist.
Also if you’re a parent and are genuinely concerned about your children’s behaviour and worry they might end up criminals, make them watch the entire series back to back. They’ll be scared shitless of prison for the rest of thier lives!
Addendum: Oz is not a “Sci-fi prison drama” as it was listed in the Radio Times one week, but that is actually why I started watching it somewhat unknowingly. While I was waiting for the spaceships to appear, it sucked me in. I can only assume it’s a reference to Oz’s one mis-step in terms of story, and that being the introduction of a plot line about aging pills, which would age prisoners the length of thier sentance, allowing early release. That was weird. But if I could make any TV show in the world, it would be Oz: But on a Prison Spaceship in the Future.