Oz, 20 Years Later
I once was asked to describe the show Oz in terms of other shows that it what I told them was that it was The Wire-in a prison meets Game of Thrones with less subtlety and more full-frontal nudity. Going back and watching the pilot a few years after having finished my first run-through of the series, I wasn’t far off. Either way, Oz was the grittiest, darkest that show HBO had ever produced when it started in 1996, and since its run ended in 2003, little has come in its wake to take that title away.
The pilot episode of Oz was aptly called “The Routine,” and it laid out much of what would make this show memorable. In the words of narrator Augustus Hill (played by Harold Perrineau Jr) “Oz, that’s the name on the street for the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary. Oz is retro, Oz is retribution. You wanna punish a man? Separate him from his family, separate him from himself, cage him up with his own kind.”
And much of what you see on the show is the men of Oz trying to deal with being caged. Those with the possibility of parole trying to stay out of trouble (or trying to not get caught) and those without, exercising what agency they have while incarcerated.
The episode can be loosely separated into three parts. The first fifteen minutes are dedicated to, a new inmate, Tobias Beecher – a lawyer convicted of manslaughter and driving while intoxicated. Beecher is absolutely terrified entering the prison, especially once he meets his cellmate Simon Adebisi who hints at a future of molestation if they live together. Then he meets Vern Shillinger at a meal, who tells him to request a cell change, and like that, Beecher thinks his stay in Oz won’t be that bad. That is until Vern, his new cellmate tattoos a swastika into his rear during their first night together. Gritty dark drama is what Oz did best, and it was never done better than by taking the everyman Tobias Beecher and throwing him to the dogs.
Oz, The Grittiest HBO Show
The second part of the episode is only about eight minutes long and is dedicated to Kareem Said – A devout Muslim convicted of Arson. After talking with the unit manager Tim McManus he takes control of the Muslim group at the prison and preaches non-violence in the face of the other black inmates who try and start a fight. This part of the episode seems unfinished, but showrunner Tom Fontana lays these kinds of stories over multiple episodes creating that sense of sustained conflict that runs through the show.
The last part of the episode is dedicated to Dito Ortalani, one of the aforementioned ‘lifers’ who was imprisoned for first-degree murder is a part of the Italian mob in the prison. Hot-headed and vehemently homophobic, when he nearly beats a man to death in the showers, McManus puts him to work in the AIDS ward to try and teach him a lesson. He meets an AIDS victim there who asks him repeatedly for death. When he finally learns some sympathy for his condition and agrees to put him out of his misery, he’s caught smothering the patient and beaten and sedated by guards. Then, in a final and brutal irony, he is burned alive by his enemies for the man he beat earlier in the episode.
The brutality of “The Routine” of life in Oz is possibly the most consistent theme the show had. Prison life is no easy time, and while the show delved into more political topics in later seasons, it was always under the guise of how throwing violent men together in a prison simply breeds more violence.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.