OZ: An Analysis
The television series “Oz” is an American serial prison drama that ran on HBO from 1997-2003. It was created and produced by Tom Fontana, who wrote on every episode as well. Though the state where the show takes place is never mentioned, “Oz” was filmed in New York and New Jersey. It was praised by critics and audiences alike. “Oz” deals with hot button issues such as violence, drug use, and homosexuality. Each episode features individual storylines of at least 5 different characters; inmates as well as prison officials, and sometimes even visitors to the facility. The series is often cited as groundbreaking due to its gritty, realistic portrayal of prison life and its inhabitants.
The tools used in “Oz” include making it as authentic as possible, which means using live action characters and realistic storylines. The primary language spoken and written is English, though there are often nationally diverse characters who speak Russian, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian, among others. There is no main character, exactly, but rather 5 or 6 with equal episode exposure, and a plethora of other minor characters. No one in “Oz” is safe from death either, not even main characters. The cast is constantly rotating, with characters coming and going in each episode. A unique tool used by “Oz” is the fact that the show is on HBO, a pay network, so the unrated content is very extreme. This includes violence such as on-screen murder and stabbings, graphic sexual content including homosexuality, nudity, and guards’ sexual abuse, drug use including overdose, addiction, and withdrawal, and coarse language throughout every episode.
The understanding of social contexts is vital in understanding the inner workings at the prison in “Oz”. “Oz” can be seen as a microcosm of society, in that there are different cliques, racial tension, rules and institutions under which the prisoners must abide, and even issues of love. Much like high school peer groups such as the “jocks”, “nerds”, “preps”, “bullies”, etc., groups in “Oz” are divided into ten factions: the Irish, the Muslims, the Latinos, the Italians, the Gangsters, the Aryans, the Homosexuals, the Bikers, the Christians, and the Others, who don’t fit neatly into any one category. “Oz” can again be likened to society at large in that none of the subgroups are able to live in harmony perpetually. It is inevitable that there will be conflict between at least two of the groups at some point, and it is also likely that there will be conflict within the confines of a single group.
An example of inter-group conflict in “Oz” occurs when the Latinos tell one of their members, Miguel Alvarez, that if he wants to be considered one of them anymore, he must stab the eyes of one of the guards. He does as he is told, but when the other Latinos are being busted for drugs by the officers, Miguel leaves the scene and is suspected by the others as ratting on them to the guards. This creates a rift among the group members, who feel as though Miguel had betrayed them. Much of the remainder of the series deals with Miguel and the Latinos’ tarnished relationship. This example is not much different than in real life when, for example, a potential member of a fraternity is being initiated, or “hazed”, by the other members. If that individual were to go to a figure of authority and tell them who the culprits were, it is likely that the fraternity members will feel betrayed as well.
The title “Oz” comes from the name of the prison featured in every episode: the Oswald State Correctional Facility. The series focuses mainly on one section of the prison, an experimental unit where the prisoners roam free called “Emerald City”. Each episode begins and ends with a direct camera address by one of the inmates- a wheelchair bound African American deemed as one of the “Others”, Augustus Hill. . Augustus serves as the arbiter of the main aesthetics in “Oz”. Not only does the audience learn from him what the episode entails, but we also hear his philosophical musings and even the occasional history lesson. He introduces us to current and incoming prisoners via flashbacks of their crimes, and gives us the main details of their case and the years they have been sentenced to serve. When Augustus speaks, it is one of the few times a static camera is used. Perhaps this is because of the fact that he acts as the voice of reason amongst the chaotic life in prison. A handheld camera is employed mostly, subconsciously painting the prisoners as unstable, in effort to suggest that they can lose control at any minute. Used on purpose, it gives the viewer a calculated sense of uneasiness. Other characters also often talk about the aesthetics of the color scheme in the prison. The warden, Leo Glynn, refers to life as being, “gray. As gray as these… walls.” There is no doubt that the color scheme for “Oz” was chosen not only as a reflection of the dullness of actual prisons, but also as an emotional allegory into the minds of the inmates; colorless, hopeless, and dull.
“Oz” boasts a diverse audience, most likely due to the fact that the characters are so diverse. The warden is African American, the “Emerald City” unit leader is Caucasian, and the rest of the cast is split evenly among different ethnicities. Since much of the subject matter on “Oz” deals with social critiques, this lends itself to the attraction of even more viewers. Viewers come from both ends of the political spectrum as well. The Warden is portrayed as more conservative, while the Emerald City leader, Tim McManus, is more liberal. The inmates also hold views that many audience members can relate to, whether politically correct or not. One of the most endearing characters, Tobias Beecher, is a family man sentenced to prison, with a wife and three children he has to leave behind. He soon engages in a homosexual relationship with a fellow inmate, Christopher Keller, and confesses to everyone that he is in love. Though their affair is turbulent, the portrayal of the match-up is as endearing as any straight relationship, and is not seen as strange or unnatural by almost any of the inmates or guards.
“Oz” is a serial narrative, with recurring storylines mentioned several episodes and sometimes even seasons after they are first introduced. With every continuation of the multiple characters’ stories, a series of flashbacks are used to get the viewers up to par on the current predicament of that individual. The viewer knows they are flashbacks because of the dull color scheme and tense instrumental music playing in the background. One of the main narratives alluded to time and time again is the unhealthy obsessive relationship between one of the inmates, Ryan O’Reily, and the prison doctor, Gloria Nathan. Almost every episode has Ryan mentioning his love for Dr. Nathan in some way, and we follow this story until the series finale. Another recurring narrative focuses on the critiquing of politics and the government through the character of the corrupt governor James Devlin. He often show his extreme power over the prison institution by demanding the Warden do things his way, and even attempts to pardon a prisoner, who surprisingly refuses to be released. The African American Muslim character of Kareem Said, the pardoned inmate, has a multitude of story arcs where he attempts to deal with “injustice”, political, social, and otherwise. The structure in Oz is without a doubt modern society on a smaller scale.
“Oz” is not only popular in the United States, but also around the world. It is broadcast on different outlets in multiple countries and languages. Every episode is available streaming online through the HBO Go service, and a store still sells “Oz” related products on HBO.com. A YouTube search reveals several former TV ad spots that ran on HBO for the series, as well as for the DVDs. All 56 episodes in the show’s six seasons are available on DVD, and feature episode synopses, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes shorts, and commentaries with the cast and crew. Subtitles are available on seasons three through six. A soundtrack featuring “Oz”-inspired songs is available, and a book, “Oz: Behind These Walls- The Journal of Augustus Hill” was released to coincide with the show’s last season. Nearly every media outlet is accounted for!
“Oz” is a remarkable, cleverly written, and flawlessly acted series that contains valuable themes that every viewer can appreciate. Through its tools, aesthetics, contexts of production, and engrossing narratives, “Oz” paves the way for intelligent discussion and critique. Every episode triggers an array of emotions and provokes calls to social action and different ways of thinking. The audience is reached through a plethora of texts and distribution, and the series attracts all types of viewers, young and old. “Oz” has certainly opened my eyes to new ideas, and remains my favorite television series of all time.