Anniversaries of The Revolution: Commemorating Series That Made TV Great
Part 1: OZ- 25 Years Ago, The Revolution REALLY Started
This years marks significant anniversaries in some of the most influential and greatest television series that were significant to beginning the era of Peak TV. By looking back at them and the people who created them, we can see just how extraordinary they were, why the changed the conversation about TV and the sources for it, and whether they hold up with the passage of time. I will start this series by recognizing the HBO drama that truly started the revolution; though I’m almost positive the world ignored it when it happened.
When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first performed, they had to stop the audience from rushing the orchestra. When The Playboy of the Western World debut, there were riots in Dublin. When Kandinsky and Duchamps were debut in the Armory Show in New York in 1913, most critics were baffled. Similarly 25 years ago this June, when HBO premiered OZ, most of the critical community was utterly flummoxed.
Here was a series unlike any that had ever aired on television. There was violence at a level you couldn’t believe: a character was stabbed in the first minute, there was the beating of a gay black man and the suffocation of a patient dying from AIDS. The last minute showed the character who appeared to be the lead being set on fire. Even that seemed minor compared to the most shocking scene: a nude man getting a swastika burned onto his ass while the audience watched. All of this, by the way, was taking place behind the scenes of a maximum security prison. All of the prisoners seemed monstrous, and all of the police and authority figures were too cynical. The one person who seemed idealistic — the unit manager of what would be cynical known as Em City — was considered utterly unqualified to run his unit, and too arrogant to know what he was doing.
When people consider where the revolution of Peak TV began, understandably everybody starts with The Sopranos in January of 1999, even though Oz had debuted a year and a half earlier. We shouldn’t entirely blame people for thinking that, though. The Sopranos was immediately recognized with near universal critical acclaim and started to dominate the awards brackets almost from its first season, even though it would not win the Best Drama from the Emmys until its fifth year on the air. The Sopranos ratings were also the highest for an HBO series to date, and essentially put the network on the map.
Oz, by contrast, never received high critical favor; on the contrary many major publications like TV Guide and The New York Times found it horrific and usually unwatchable. Only a few brave publications such as Entertainment Weekly recognized its genius and would constantly put the show on its Top 10 list. The series was never nominated for Best Dramas by the Emmys or any other awards group, only receiving the occasional technical nomination. And while the series had a loyal fan-base, when it departed the air in 2003, there were now so many contenders for extraordinary television — almost all of them on HBO — that its departure was barely noticed.
Yet it is clear that without Oz the revolution doesn’t happen at all. It’s not just that so many of the cast members would end up starring in so many of the great series of that era; it’s that the rules it established early on were the basic blueprint for how so much television that has unfolded in the quarter of a century since then. So in this article, I will take a look at OZ: how it came to fruition, the people behind it, and why it worked as well as it did.
I will start with a personal note: OZ was the first Peak TV series I ever watched all the way through from beginning to end. This was more due to timing than anything else. When I was nineteen, my parents broke down and added HBO to our cable package. In those pre-streaming, pre-DVD days, it was not uncommon for cable networks to repeatedly rerun their series in chronological order leading up to the new season. By the end of the winter of 1999, I had seen every episode (not a major struggle: OZ only aired eight episodes a season) and was more or less hooked. I won’t lie and say I knew that I was watching the future of television, but even at nineteen I could tell that this was something radically different.
Even with the new subscription I might not have watched OZ had I not been intimately familiar with the show-runner Tom Fontana. (I’d use the term ‘head-writer’ but in the case of Oz, that’s not doing Fontana justice; he wrote or co-wrote every one of the series fifty-six episodes.)Just three years earlier I had become fascinated, then obsessed with Homicide: Life on the Street, a police procedural unlike any in network television before or since. Fontana had been one of the head writers for the series and in the spring of 1997, he had taken a reduced role on the series to begin working on Oz.
It might be a bit of a stretch to say that Oz would not exist without Homicide, but it isn’t much of one. A large part of this was due to who ended up starring on Oz. On Homicide, the writers had assembled a rich group of actors in guest stars or recurring roles throughout the first five seasons. At least a dozen actors who’d appeared on Homicide in that capacity would play lead roles on Oz. Critical to this group were Lee Tergesen, who would end up playing Tobias Beecher, a lawyer send to a maximum security prison for a hit-and-run while under the influence; future Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, who played Vern Schillinger, the head of the Aryan brotherhood and devoted father; Terry Kinney, who played Tim McManus, unit manager of Em City, Jon Seda (who would play Paul Falsone the last two seasons of Homicide) who played Dino Ortolani, the mobster who gets killed in the pilot; Dean Winters who played Ryan O’Reilly, a manipulator so clever Machiavelli would have taken pointers from him, and a little known actress named Edie Falco, who’d played prison guard Diane Wittelsey.
The series also featured several well-known character actors: Ernie Hudson played Warden Leo Glynn and Rita Moreno and B.D. Wong would play two members of the clergy unlike any other: the former, Sister Peter Marie, a nun who had been married and who during the series would question her part in the convent; the latter, Father Ray Mukada, who wore leather, smoked like a chimney and could be as bad ass as some of the convicts he dealt with. They would be the best known members of what would be at the time an unprecedented number of actors of color who would play lead and supporting roles throughout the series, many of whom would go on to great fame in other roles. They included Adewale-Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who played the memorable Nigerian drug lord Adebisi, Eamonn Walker, who played the Black Muslim Kareem Said, considering himself a political prisoner and a vehement militarist, and Harold Perrineau as Augustus Hill, a murderer in a wheelchair, who served as the series Greek Chorus.
Several things became clear the longer one watched the series. It wasn’t just the deaths that became a regular feature of the show (by my count, the series would average one dead character an episode during the series run) but the bloodiness of so many of them. Few would top the level of Jon Seda being burned to death in the series premiere, but there could be many horrific ones: from having your throat cut or your neck broken to falling down an elevator shaft. Yet often the most violent incidents didn’t have to involve killing to be brutal. One mob boss was fed broken glass in his food over a period of weeks by O’Reilly and then began to bleed from every orifice in the common area. A guard had his eyes plucked out and the audience saw the bloody sockets. A priest who had been a sex offender was crucified in the gym. In the latter two cases, the victim survived.
Then of course, there was the nudity and the sex. On a DVD commentary, Tergesen said it wasn’t until the season began shooting that the cast realized how much working out they were going to have to do. Indeed, one could make the arguably that to that point in TV history, only pornographic series had similar displays of nudity and none of what you saw on OZ involved the people you necessarily wanted to see nude. (I can only speak for myself; I imagine female had a different reaction.) But unlike later series, I don’t think that Fontana and his creators were doing for the purposes of exploitation but rather to show the utter lack of privacy in prison. Many of the nude scenes featured the character using the bathroom with no signs of shame. That’s the point. Shame is something you have to surrender when you go to prison.
OZ also fundamentally dealt with every aspect of gay sex, though I should mention we saw almost no sex scenes in the series and the few we did were mainly hetero based. This was also critical. Many of the characters believed at their core that homosexuality was an abomination; some like Said and members of the mob, for religious reasons, some because the toxic masculinity that follows America was definitely in prison. And it’s clear a lot of these men were compartmentalizing. In that sense, Schillinger could rape Beecher on multiple occasions, yet say in a therapy session: “I’m no f — — t’ and be utterly sincere in what they meant. I would argue that OZ may have been the first American television series to sincerely and completely look at homosexual love as well as gay rape with no attempts to demonize. The characters might do it to each other, but the series itself did not.
And if nothing else OZ showed fundamentally how broken the criminal justice system was. At the climax of Season 1, a riot has broken out in Em City. Said, the leader and instigator of the riot is meeting with McManus who is trying to convince him to end the riot. Said delivers a monologue that has as much relevance today as it did in the 1990s: “I’m not saying the men in this prison are innocent. I’m saying that they are in here not because of the crimes they committed but the color of their skin! Their lack of education! The fact that they are poor! This riot isn’t…about life in prison. It’s about the whole hoary judicial system. We don’t need better prisons, safer prisons. We need better justice!”
And the tragedy of the series is that for all the efforts of men like Said and McManus, they could do nothing to change the system. Most of their efforts were blocked by the representative of politics Governor Devlin (played masterfully by Zeljko Ivanek as he began his transition from every-man to evil incarnate), a man whose every action seemed somehow more corrupt and criminal than all the crimes committed by the prisoners in Oswald put together. Much of the series involved Devlin cutting piece by piece every cherished right the prisoners might have, from smoking to conjugal visits taking away the GED program and bringing back the death penalty. Throughout the series, we learned that he was accused of corruption, ethics violations and infidelity. In the final season, we learned that his initial election to governor may have been arranged by voter fraud by a political ally (who naturally was sent to prison).Throughout the series run, an assassination attempt followed, he was reelected, and then arranged the murder of a political ally. The series finale ended with the possibility of prison time for him; knowing the world of OZ, it would not have shocked me if Devlin ended up becoming President.
Some might have argued that Devlin was too much pure evil, but the fact is he was only the top of a system that had no use for any of the men in OZ. I should mention that OZ was one of the most claustrophobic series in TV history; there were only four or five exterior shots in the entire series and most of the show took place entire in closed rooms. This isn’t the normal way of life for any prison and not even for OZ; we heard of exercise yards but we never saw them; the prisoners all worked out in the gym. This was by design. Fontana meant for the viewer to get what prison was like. Locked in a succession of small rooms, with people constantly looking over your shoulder, with no privacy every day for the rest of your life…if you were lucky. In the final episode, McManus admitted why he worked so hard to build a better life for the prisoners in Em City: “It’s that, for most of them, they’ll probably never know any other kind.”
It’s hard to enjoy a series like OZ. I think I’ve seen every episode at least half a dozen times, but I can’t really say I got any pleasure from watching it. There weren’t any heroes in this system, just a bunch of bad men doing bad things. And as we saw in the saw in the case of people like Beecher and Said, if you weren’t a violent man going into OZ you would become one after you stayed long enough. Orange Is the New Black which premiered almost a decade after OZ aired its last episode, was idolized by millions of viewers, many of whom (Emmy voters among them) didn’t know that they were watching a drama or a comedy. No one could make that mistake watching OZ; it was relentlessly grim with even the moments of lightness having a dark tone.
Two of the more comic characters were Bob Ribedeau and Agamemnon Busmalis were among the oldest prisoners in OZ and would provide some moments of laughter about Busmalis’ usually futile attempts to escape and their mutual love of a television show called ‘Miss Sally’s Schoolyard.’ But even they had very dark times: when two prisoners forced them to switch cells so that they could use a tunnel the two had spent a season digging, they rigged it to collapse on them when they escaped and then barely managed a straight face lying about to McManus. (To be far, they were two brutal Aryans who’d already killed two people, so it’s hard to mourn them.) At one point, Busmalis would escape without Bob and Bob would be hurt, the two would have a rift and Bob would try to kill his friend. (This time, he had a brain tumor that was affected his judgment.)
And OZ did have flaws in hindsight. For one thing, there was the fact that you could never tell how much time was passing over the course of a season: the dates that we got in the premiere matched up with the ones of the end. You could argue that was deliberate; a symbol of how that life in prison means time is irrelevant. Another larger problem was the use of Augustus appearing in scenes where he broke the fourth wall and talked to the audience. This wasn’t so much a precursor of dramas like House of Cards and Mr. Robot as a fragmented Greek Chorus; the longer the series went on, the more what he talked about to the audience had less relevance to the action. And honestly, I think the series went on too long. I think the series should have ended with the second half of Season 4, with a gas explosion threatening to destroy all of OZ. It would have been an abrupt ending — and given Fontana’s problems with ending series in the past, One can understand why he didn’t do it — but in all honesty, the final two seasons were both relentlessly grim just for the sake of being grim and had far less imagination than the earlier seasons.
But OZ has to be considered where the revolution started, not only because of what it did for HBO but because so many of the cast members were integral in so many of the great series to come. I’ve mentioned Falco already; Akinnouye-Agbaje and Perrineau would both star on Lost and there were at least half a dozen actors, from Lance Reddick to JD Williams who ended up with leading roles on The Wire when there, ahem, sentence ended. You could also argue that in a sense OZ was a great ‘scared straight program’ because at least a dozen actors on the series who played criminals on OZ ended up playing cops on other shows. These include Christopher Meloni and Kathryn Erbe who would each spend more than a decade in the Law and Order franchise (as would Dean Winters, briefly); David Zayas and Erik King who played Miami cops who could catch Dexter (Lauren Velez was on both shows too, but she played a doctor on Oz) and Kirk Acevedo who played an FBI agent on Fringe (alongside Lance Reddick!) Only Williams remained a slinger, but then he was too young to join the force.
OZ was never the masterpiece that The Sopranos was. It wasn’t at light-hearted about the futility of the criminal justice system as The Wire was. And it wasn’t nearly as poetic with its curses or its violence as Deadwood was. But without OZ, I don’t think anyone at HBO would have had the courage to greenlight any of those series. For so many great showrunners of the first decade of this century, there was no place like HBO. And none of them would have been able to get started if HBO hadn’t had faith in a land called OZ.