One night in the late nineties while watching channel 4 I caught a random episode of a prison drama titled simply Oz. I watched in amazement the inmates of Emerald City, an experimental wing within Oswald State Correctional Facility. They wore their own clothes rather than prison uniforms and seemed free to roam around playing cards and watching a kids TV show featuring puppets and an attractive female presenter which the sex starved criminals seemed transfixed by. By the end of that first episode I was hooked and was never disappointed as I continued to watch for six series which ran from 1997-2003.
Narrated by wheelchair bound August Hill (Harold Perrineau) Michael from Lost, the series starts by following Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) a former lawyer convicted of the manslaughter of a young girl while drink driving. As with every new criminal Hill reads out his prisoner number, name, crime and sentence as we meet him on screen. As the series progressed I liked to try and guess the sentence based on the crime. Why not play along yourselves?
Beecher is inducted into the prison and is all alone in the midst of the gangs of blacks, Latinos, bikers, Aryans and Italian gangsters. A few lone wolves float around the periphery managing to stay alive by whatever underhanded means necessary. One such individual is Ryan O’Reily, my favourite character. Of Irish descent he manages to stay protected and get other inmates to carry out his dirty deeds.
The portrayal of the gangs is where the show really excels. Groups who would just as soon kill each other on the outside are forced to work and live together in order to maintain the equilibrium and stay in Em City.
That said, a whole lot of crime goes on under the guard’s noses as well as more publicly. These include riots, drug dealing, bombings, murder and rape. A whole lot of rape. As Chris Rock says, ‘They will rape you in prison.’ He is correct. Partly because they are in an almost entirely male environment partly to assert power over each other, there is nothing some prisoners enjoy more than a bit of rape.
The two main female characters each have male sounding names, Sister Peter Marie a nun working in the chapel and Dr. Nathan in the infirmary. There are a couple of female guards, one played by Soprano’s Edie Falco but only one female inmate, Shirley Bellinger, on death row for the murder of her own daughter. One of the series’ most fascinating characters, you genuinely empathise with her.
Over it’s six series Oz became the breeding ground for many of TV’s finest actors. The Wire’s Lt. Daniels (Lance Reddick), Carver (Seth Gilliam) and Bodie (J. D. Williams) all feature heavily as well as Lost’s Michael as previously mentioned also Mr Echo (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who plays Simon Adebisi one of the most ruthless drug dealers you will ever see. Other recognisable faces include Fringe’s Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo) as Miguel Alvarez, Ghostbusters’ Winstone Zedmore (Ernie Hudson) as Warden Leo Glynn and Spiderman’s J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) who plays Vern Shillinger, leader of the Aryans and one of the most amusingly dark characters in Oz.
Although it certainly has it’s dark side, like all great TV shows Oz balances itself with some incredibly macabre humour, often during or immediately after something that made you cringe you found yourself laughing out loud.
Oz’s greatest accomplishment is showing you with alarming realism into the lives of some of TV’s most violent criminals and at the same time making you connect and feel for them. While you may despise Adebisi or Shillinger you can’t help but feel they are a product of their environments and the system.
If you are a fan of prison dramas, great story telling or great acting, or rape, I highly recommend you rent, buy or download Oz immediately.