So because I am a degenerate with too much time on my hands I’ve been binge-watching several different shows the last few months. The most recent show I started, however, is HBO’s late 90s escape into the world of federal penitentiaries; Oz.
Now, when I hopped into this show all I really knew about it was a reference on Arrested Development.
But it turns out there’s actually a pretty good show behind that joke. Oz takes us into the world of Oswald State Penitentiary in New York State, and in spite of layers upon layers of unintentional comedy, still manages to provide an incredibly entertaining viewing experience. Furthermore, I’m very interested in Oz as a building block of the HBO brand. It strikes me as exactly the kind of attempted “gritty” show HBO was supposed to be producing in their infancy, before it was a name brand, and when it was still hocking subscriptions with the fervor of a college freshman accepting beers at his first party. HBO was the network that could show nudity, violence, and anything they wanted. They were allowed to take on subject the big networks, and even cable networks, wouldn’t touch. So what better place to host an HBO show than a prison, right?
My problem with Oz, however, is that rather than depicting a “realistic” idea of a prison, it seems to represent some kind of caricature of what someone in the late 90s thought a prison looked like. They have everything that High School kids like to pretend prison is all about. Differnt gangs along racial lines; you’ve got your Aryan Brotherhood, your Black Muslims, your Black gangstas (complete with one character is is apparently from Cameroon or something?), Latinos, Italian Mafia types, an Irish guy here or there… all the stables of a good prison joke. But it doesn’t stop there. There are of course the “prags” which Oz tells us is slang for “Prison Fags”… the inmates forced to be sex slaves for other prisoners… which I guess could be something believable if they didn’t all end up looking like this on the show…
… uhhh… yeah…. where did they even get a fishnet shirt in prison? … anyway… So Oz actually takes place within the “Emerald City” of “vice-warden” Tim McManus [whom the audience may choose to associate with as they attempt to play politician and decide what the best prison system would be] who has complete control over an individual cell block ( “Em City” ) in which he is trying to experiment on how to improve the American prison system. He is of the opinion that prisons are not reforming inmates, as they should do, but rather serve as holding grounds where individuals simply wait until they are released and can commit the same crimes again, therefore re-booking their ticket back to the Wonderful World of Oz. Here, then, we see the deeper agenda of the show. It is a social commentary lamenting the current state of the American Prison System (circa 1997).
Characters such as Kareem Said (A Black Muslim Imam and religious zealot) bemoan racial discrimination within America on whole, and the disproportionate numbers of African American males interned in the prison system. The “war on drugs” is fleetingly touched upon as a failure by the fact that drugs easily and frequently permeate through the prison walls. If American society cannot even keep drugs out of maximum security prisons, how could it possibly contain drug use in free society?) The morality and pragmatism of the Death Penalty are debated vehemently by the prison staff and elected state officials. And perhaps more poignantly, the show’s creators call into question the usefulness of a prison system in general (in a capacity other than ‘long term holding cell’ ) by giving us another character with whom we are supposed to relate, Tobias Beecher.
Beecher represents everything your average middle class white guy (like yours truly) might fear would happen to them if they went to prison. He committed a crime which although certainly more prevalent in the 90s, is still an issue today. He drove drunk and killed a little girl and has been sentences to serve out his punishment in Oz. He enters Oz as a dorky former lawyer who clearly has no place in the prison. He is quickly turned into another inmate’s “Prag” and tortured in countless ways. He turns to drugs (heroine) to escape his situation before finally suffering a mental breakdown near the end of Season 1, and ultimately collapsing into an utter maniac during the riot which takes place on Season One’s finale.
The idea with Beecher, it seems to me, is to show how inhumane the prison system is and how it can take your every day Tom, Dick, or Harry, who made one (atrocious) mistake, and turn them into a monster. You did not put a monster into prison but you will inject one into society when Beecher gets out, thus illustrating that the prison system has the exact opposite effect than it is intended to have (that of rehabilitation). Prison in many ways is meant to dehumanize, and in the case of Beecher, he ceased to be a human as a result of his time there. Moreover, this issue even extends to pollute the guards. The guards smuggle contraband from drugs to cigarettes into the prison, and while some of them are painted as corrupt from the start, others, such as officer Diane Whittlesey , are corrupted in front of our very eyes, thus again elucidating the corrosive nature, in the show-writers view, of the American prison system.
Now, I think these issues are all worthy topics of conversation, even today, twenty years after Oz’s run on TV. However, in television form all these story-lines seem overly condensed, simplified, and truncated. In a way it feels like elucidating them in this way belittles the point, especially when it takes place in a world I already feel is a caricature, not strongly based in reality, in the first place. When an issue as large as the death penalty is dealt with in a scant 50 minute time frame, a veritable cornucopia of material slips through the cracks. It just feels like its not a long enough period of time to fully dissect the issue in an intelligent manner.
In a lot of ways then it reminds me of a quote by Chuck Klosterman when talking about Royce White. White is a notably troubled individual who had his NBA career derailed due to various mental ailments which plagued him. Klosterman once described his as “the smartest eighth grader you’ve ever met” but he was of course referring to a 21 year old man. This is the same kind of vibe I get from Oz a lot of the time. Its like the magna opus of some angsty high school teenage kid who wants to rant and rave against societal issues which disturb him, but he lacks the tools to make his points clear and to present these points in the best manner possible. It just doesn’t feel perfectly executed as so many later HBO shows dealing with similar topics have.
All that being said, it seems to me like Oz set the tone and laid the foundation for those spectacular HBO products like The Wire (even sharing several key actors, as HBO shows are want to do) and True Detective. The Wire in particular deals with many of the same societal issues, but does so in an altogether more calm, collected, and cultured way, thus improving on the foundation which Oz built.
Oz by no means is a bad show or a bad idea. Certain things seem quirky and strange to me, but I absolutely love some of the other decisions made with the show. It makes use of a theatrical tool which I personally am fond of, by having the narrator be one of the characters in the show, but having the two individuals seem wholly distinct from one another. Our narrator is a wheelchair bound prisoner in Oz who, when acting as narrator, wears a microphone / headset that evokes imagery of a Church Tent Revival preacher, opening our eyes to the world of Oz, explaining the mentality and life of the inmates. However, when he transitions back into prisoner he has none of the characteristics of his omnipresent, all knowing, fourth wall breaking narrator, but is just another prisoner (thus giving the things he says as narrator credibility, even if the two individuals seem distant from one another).
All told this show does a ton of things well, and you can clearly see how it broke ground for HBO as a network and was an integral cog in building the network that I know and love today. The Coolio-lookin’ narrator, references to Brad Pitt’s breakout film Seven, and Seinfeld, make us painfully aware that the show is very much a product of the 90s, but in truth I’m having a lot of fun going back and viewing this specific issue through that lens.
In some ways its fun (albeit slightly disheartening) to see some of the same issues being discussed today, and to see how those issues were viewed, dealt with, and thought of a couple decades ago. Clearly this show has a lot of strengths in its own right, and I believe watching it with this historical lens just adds one more strenght to the show. Even if it can be incredibly ridiculous at times, I certainly haven’t stopped watching it yet, and I haven’t stopped enjoying it yet either. I still have 5 more seasons to go after finishing season 1, but hey… Game of Thrones isn’t back for another 6 months anyway, right?