I recently decided to rewatch Oz after seeing it pop up on Amazon Prime (Amazon Prime includes a Netflix style streaming service, and is apparently not named after the leader of a tribe of warrior women Autobots). I remember watching a few episodes of Oz in my youth but those were the days before the internet and boxed sets, when TV had to be watched at a certain time of day or else it was gone forever, and it featured so much male nudity it was not the sort of show you wanted to have on TV when a parent came in to tell you to go to bed.
One of my enduring memories is the character of Vernon Schillinger, played by J.K Simmons and certainly one of the most memorable TV villains I can think of. Simmons is a first rate actor who might be most recognisable now as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films or in the Oscar nominated Whiplash, but in Oz he plays a Neo-Nazi – and not a nice every-day, cuddly Neo-Nazi either, one of the very worst Neo-Nazis around. Simmons adds a lot to Oz, which is a show that sometimes suffers in the acting department. He’s a guy with considerable gravitas and also a guy capable of adding a lot of nuance to a role that could easily have just been predictable. At times he is capable of being worryingly sympathetic (such as when he is excited about being a granddad), and at other times he’s utterly detestable. Simmons has made a career out of similar characters, and it’s great to see him getting some recognition at last. He’s certainly the closest thing Oz has to an all-out villain (even fellow Nazi thug Robson turns out to be more complicated than you’d expect). Oz is often worth watching just for his scenes.
And if Oz has a hero, it could be Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), a slightly unfortunate character who is punished for a drunk driving accident with the harshest possible sentence. He’s the character that represents the viewer – the educated, HBO watching, book reading type. The sort of guy that gets eaten alive in a prison like Oz. Somewhat predictably, Beecher has a hard time when he falls afoul of those rascally Nazis, but what’s really interesting is the way the show deals with his redemption/descent into madness/confusion. There’s no easy way out for Beecher – no easy way out for the viewer – he gets dragged down into Oz both physically and morally and it’s fascinating to see how his personal code of ethics becomes more malleable and confused over time. He falls in love with a man that has raped and killed homosexuals – would he have predicted that on entering Oz for the first time? And then as a viewer, should we be happy for him? Oz doesn’t give the viewer an easy ride, there’s no training montage in the gym followed by cathartic beating up of abusers, there’s no ‘I’ve learned my lesson and now I’m a better man’ moments, and there are no ‘happily every after’ endings. It’s just a mess, and the story ends in a horrible mess. As the convicts would say, it’s just Oz.
Along with all the Nazis there are assorted other gangs of murderers, rapists and psychopaths – at it’s heart it is a programme about warring tribes: the Nazis, the Mafia, etc. It’s full of them to such an extent that after a while you become somewhat inured to the crimes, and even start rooting for characters that you are know you probably shouldn’t. This is deliberate: Oz is not a show that lets you get away with lazy viewing habits like supporting a hero or booing a villain. Most of the characters in Oz are hard to define as either heroes or villains, you may cheer them on one minute and detest them the next. One character that really encapsulates this is Ryan O’Reily (Dean Winters) – a roguish grifter who exploits, cheats and cons his way through day-to-day life in Oz. I found it hard not to like O’Reily, despite his frequent horrific acts (and his style of acting that is more enthusiastic than anything) – he’s fun to watch as he arranges for his enemies to kill each other. And while Oz is all about moral lessons they are anything but black and white. There’s no redemption or sense that good things happen to good people. Does Ryan get away with it? Was he a hero or a villain? Oz doesn’t hold your hand and spell it out for you, and this is really refreshing. In fact, Oz doesn’t just refuse to hold your hand, it walks off ten steps ahead of you and acts like it doesn’t even know who you are.
Oz has a pretty unique format – each episode is essentially divided into several mini-episodes each centered on one group of characters – Beecher and Schillinger being the main act, just about. The rest of the cast pops in and out, and occasionally characters get promoted to the lime light. Character arcs tend to be very fast moving – a character can be introduced in one scene only to die off a few minutes later (actually this happens a lot). This leads to a pretty refreshing experience, if a story arc is getting stale you know that the next one will be along in a few minutes. There are a few story arcs I didn’t care for – a lot of the stuff involving Christianity in the latter seasons was not especially interesting or convincing – but luckily it all moves so fast it doesn’t really matter. Oh a cliched Irish priest has arrived, not so keen on him… oh good he’s dead. This style is deliberate, to better emphasis how brutal Oz is, and how anyone can just get shanked at any time. It’s exciting too, there is a certain thrill in seeing main characters getting killed off, or new interesting ones arriving – it’s Royal Rumble television. No-one is safe, and not everyone that arrives is going to stick around! In fact it is interesting to see just how many of the cast of the HBO series The Wire arrive and inevitably get fucked over by Oz, at least six by my count.
The first season of Oz suffers somewhat from a touch of the 90s – but if you can overlook it in The Sopranos you can overlook it here. The show improves as it goes on – with obvious boosts to the budget, acting and directing making the latter seasons much easier to watch. There’s a lot of it too, yet I never felt it was repetitive or boring, probably as a result of the huge character count. Overall, Oz is definitely worth a watch so long as you don’t mind a bit of the old ultraviolence, and your parents aren’t going to unexpectedly pop in to your room to watch it with you and raise an eyebrow at all the penises.