by Spank The Monkey
Fifteen years ago this week, Tom Fontana invented television.
Okay, that’s a bit of a sweeping statement. Obviously, there must have been television before 1997: if there wasn’t, what’s all that stuff they keep showing on ITV4? Still, a few hours in front of that channel will show you that TV drama has moved on since then. These days, people want more: large ensemble casts, tightly-interwoven story arcs, and a willingness to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable on the small screen. In short, they want what we think of as ‘HBO drama’: a concept that didn’t exist until July 12th 1997, and the transmission of the very first episode of Oz.
If you look up the phrase ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ in the dictionary, you’ll probably find it illustrated with a small vignette from late in the fourth season of Oz. The inmates of the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary have just been given a new TV, complete with a subscription to cable. We watch their joy as the familiar HBO logo comes up on screen, closely followed by… a softcore documentary series about strippers called G-String Divas.
It’s funny because it’s true: G-String Divas is a real HBO series. For a large part of the station’s life it was a pretty good representation of its original programming, outside of its prime function as a movie channel. Remember all those shots of cheap motels you used to see in movies, with signs outside them boasting ‘we have HBO’? That was basically code for ‘if you’re stuck in your room for the evening, at least you’ll have a film to watch, or something you can have a wank to’.
The main exception to this was their comedy output, especially The Larry Sanders Show. Sanders was always doubled up with Seinfeld when it was shown in the UK, because hey, all American sitcoms are the same really. Except where Jerry and friends toyed with the idea of making their characters less sympathetic, the Larry Sanders crew went all-out to make themselves as appalling as possible. With a bracingly cynical view of the compromises involved in producing network television, coupled with more uses of the word ‘fuck’ than any other TV show to date, Sanders really wasn’t like any American sitcom we’d seen before.
When HBO decided to move into original drama for the first time, they needed to take a similarly innovative approach. So they approached writer Tom Fontana and producer Barry Levinson, who at that time were the team behind Homicide: Life On The Street. Homicide was a cop drama that pulled off weekly miracles within network constraints: character-driven without dissolving into soap opera, visually surprising, and not afraid to have the cops fail to solve cases. The ratings were low, but people who loved the show loved it, including the NBC executives who kept it going for seven seasons regardless. You wondered what Fontana and Levinson could pull off without a standards and practices team breathing down their necks. In 1997, we found out.
Oz is a prison drama, set in the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary, later rebranded as the Oswald State Correctional Facility. Within the walls of Oz, there’s a special unit called Emerald City run by Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), a man with Bleeding Heart Liberal written all over his balding beardy face. His aim is to rehabilitate the prisoners in his care, rather than simply punish them. Over the course of six seasons, we got to observe the impact that approach had on both inmates and staff, for better or worse.
Looking back on the pilot episode of Oz after fifteen years of HBO drama series, it’s surprising how much of what we’ve come to expect from the station’s programming is there right from the start, even down to the opening credits. They’re an impressionistic view of the world of the show, rather than a showcase of faces of the main cast – an approach that’s been used by every HBO show since. We know immediately that we’re in a bad place where people are brutalised, tormented, and occasionally hung upside down from the ceiling with the word ‘JEW’ carved into their chests.
The format of the show was multi-stranded, with storylines following the various characters over a whole season and beyond. With those old shows on ITV4, you could watch a single episode in isolation and still follow what was going on: that wasn’t the case here. Oz’s more soap-like dynamic became the televisual norm in later years, but you can see Fontana losing his nerve a little in the use of a couple of devices to help viewers through the many plots – the narrator figure of Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), and the use of flashbacks to earlier episodes inside the show itself (rather than in a ‘previously on’ prologue).
Hill points up one of the things that made Oz interesting: for all its grittiness, it wasn’t afraid to ditch realism. He’s a Greek chorus, not only acting in the story as a character, but also popping up between the scenes to make observations on what we’re going to see, or explaining unfamiliar prison slang. (Future HBO shows would also use language as a key element in their worldbuilding, but wouldn’t explicitly define it for you.) Oz was an early attempt at applying a novelistic structure to television, and Hill frequently had to jump through hoops to convince us that there was an overall theme to that particular week’s plotlines, to pull them together into a chapter of the story.
There are other things that mark out Oz as the progenitor of what came afterwards on HBO, but the obvious one was the increased freedom to play with sex, violence and language. And it’s the violence that ultimately allows Oz to pull off a trick which I think had never been done before – spend its first episode setting up the characters we’re supposed to identify with, and then killing one of them off at the end. It’s become a lazy device for shows that want to mark themselves out as edgy *coughTorchwoodcough*, but here it has the destabilising effect that was intended – a warning not to get too attached to these people, as they may not be staying around all that long. And the curious thing was, we all understood that warning, and got attached to them anyway.
“What is with this place? It’s so cliquey!” as former inmate Jerry Seinfeld said once. He had a point. One thing that gives Oz a genuine edge is its fearless handling of race, with the prison population rigidly segregating itself by country of origin. (And within this structure, the racists count as a race of their own.) I suspect that one of the reasons why the scheduling of Oz was so erratic in the UK was because it was primarily perceived as a black show: Channel 4 pushed it back further and further into the night, until the series finale eventually aired at 2am on a Sunday morning. It’s ironic, given that two of its key cast members were black Britons (Eamonn Walker and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who moved to America because they couldn’t get acting work back home.
It’s a wonder that individual characters can stand out in such a morass of potential stereotyping, but they do. Fontana’s main ensemble is beautifully balanced: they play off against each other in ways they’re blissfully unaware of. Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker), the conflicted preacher who was a Muslim on US TV several years before it felt the need to regularly include one for balance. Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo), the well-meaning Latino whose wide-eyed puppydog look was, in this location, the equivalent of having a huge KICK ME sign taped to his back. Ryan O’Reily (Dean Winters), the schemer who’s always got several different plots on the go. Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the closest thing Oz has to an out-and-out psychopath. These aren’t ‘people you love to hate’ – they’re fully drawn characters whose detail is what keeps you watching. You could probably make one complete decent human being out of all of them together, but the bits left over would be horrific.
At the centre of it all is the ongoing rivalry between Vern Schillinger (JK Simmonds) and Tobias Beecher (Lee Turgesen). Beecher is the viewer’s central point of identification – a generally good man who made one dumb mistake, his arrival at Oz is the first thing we see. His second dumb mistake is to accept Schillinger’s offer of friendship, only to discover that Vern’s method of sealing the deal involves a swastika tattoo on the buttocks. You spend most of season one watching Beecher being abused, waiting for him to grow a pair and fight back. But when the turnaround comes as Beecher takes a shit directly into Schillinger’s face, you feel he may have lost something along the way. From that point on, the key narrative of Oz is the power struggle between the two, and how fellow prisoner Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni) fits into it.
As with most television shows, the demand for content outstripped the creators’ ability to provide it, and Oz ended up running a few years longer than it needed to. The first couple of seasons built to apocalyptic climaxes, driven equally by character and violence: later ones never quite got the balance right. The plots got sillier: a ludicrous plan to thin out the prison population by giving them drugs to accelerate ageing was a horribly pitched bit of satire that didn’t fit at all. Newly-introduced characters never really meshed with the long-established ensemble, notably Omar White (Michael Wright), the Oz equivalent of Poochie in The Simpsons. But somehow it all came together for the final episode, Exeunt Omnes: a definitive resolution to the Beecher/Schillinger conflict, and a satisfying wrapup for the other stories, only let down by the self-parodic device that allowedFontana to make it a series finale.
Nine years after that finale, it’s still a minor thrill to see former Oz alumni appear in unexpected places. (For example, Miguel Alvarez is now a cop on Prime Suspect USA.) Tom Fontana continues to create new shows – he’s currently back working with Barry Levinson on BBC America’s Copper – but nothing he’s done since has had the same impact as Oz, and even that’s barely remembered nowadays. Nevertheless, without Oz, HBO wouldn’t have had the nerve to go on to make The Sopranos. Or The Wire, Deadwood, Game Of Thrones and so on. Similarly, the other movie networks wouldn’t have been goaded into making their own shows: so no Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or The Walking Dead. Well, okay, maybe the impact wasn’t all good. But we shouldn’t forget that Oz caused a seismic shift in American TV that’s still being felt 15 years later.
Oz is available on DVD in the UK from Paramount.
Prisoner number 98M123, Spank The Monkey. Convicted July 14th, 1998: talking bollocks about popular culture on the internet. Sentence: life imprisonment on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey without the possibility of parole.