Reviewed by David Williams (January 6, 2003)
HBO’s Oz premiered a few years back with all the usual hype that is bandied about when an “edgy” new series hits the airwaves. Created by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, the creators of Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz was probably more deserving of its premature buzz than most. Homicide was already a proven winner and with HBO taking off the shackles of prime time TV censorship, there was no telling what viewers could expect. Tom Fontana decided to take a very front-and-center role in the series with multiple writing and co-writing credits, while Levinson decided to remain a bit more low-key and behind-the-scenes.
Viewers found out what all the hype was about when the show premiered on the network on July 12th, 1997 and it definitely pushed the envelope of “acceptable TV” from day one. The show takes on any and all hot button topics – sex, drugs, law, order, race, religion – and frames them within the walls of a maximum security prison that contains people from all walks of life who have committed horrendous crimes.
The series is presented in a highly imaginative style, as Oz is shot from inside the confines of a prison ward. Our only exposure to the outside world is usually though black-and-white/oversaturated flashbacks that introduce us to the prisoners and their horrific crime/crimes against humanity. However, Fontana’s style is such that he wants to keeps us continually on the edge of our seats and never comfortable with those we meet in OZ, as he has no problems killing them off in grand style in order to create more chaos in the prison or the continuing storyline.
The Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary, or “OZ” as it’s lovingly referred to by its inhabitants, is where the episodes take place and we are given a behind-the-scenes tour of it, as well as its characters, by wheelchair bound inmate, Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau). OZ has a special unit inside of it named Emerald City and it is the brainchild of well meaning, but somewhat naive Tim McManus (Terry Kinney). He sees it as a more humane approach to the current penal system and it’s a place that contains a large common area for the prisoners and where the familiar metal bars have been replaced by glass panes. Since the unit is of his grand design, he tends to let his personal feelings cloud his better judgment when it comes to tough decisions that need to be made inside the ward.
McManus finds himself surrounded by an excellent support staff, with the most imperative being the hard-nosed warden, Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson). We’re also introduced to the pragmatic spiritual advisors for the inmates – Father Mukada (B.D. Wong) and Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno). The guards in the prison are a sorted bunch and most of the time, are working in cahoots with the prisoners in order to further their own agenda. The most noticeable of the bunch, Officer Whittlesey, is played by Edie Falco of The Sopranos.
The prisoners themselves are a motley crew if there ever was one. There are multiple divisions within OZ, with the most notable being the Aryan Brotherhood; run ruthlessly by Vernon Schillinger (J.K. Simmons). As I said however, the Aryans are but one of many different gangs operating inside of Emerald City and we are also introduced to the Italians; the Homeboys and their most enigmatic member, Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); the Latinos; the Muslims, led by the charismatic Kareen Said (Eamonn Walker); and even the Gays. Everyone has an angle and over time, they’ll all have an alliance and/or beef with each other when it’s politically expedient for them. However, there’s also another gang operating inside of OZ known as “The Others” – a group of inmates who don’t necessarily fit in to any one group or the other - freelancers who will gladly play both ends against the middle.
Notable members of the “Others” are Augustus Hill, our wheelchair-bound tour guide through OZ; Ryan O’Reily (Dean Winters), the most manipulative force inside of Emerald City and a man responsible for more death inside of OZ than most of the gangs combined – however, he never seems to get his hands dirty; Bob Rebadow (George Morfogen), an omniscient old timer inside of the prison who was spared death when the power went out while he was sitting in the electric chair – he now believes that God speaks directly through him on all kinds of subjects; and finally and most markedly, Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), a Harvard graduate and former lawyer who was sentenced to OZ when he committed vehicular manslaughter while drunk. He now serves out his days in OZ and finds that the tumble from highly regarded lawyer to vicious inmate is much easier - and much quicker - than expected.
The characters in Oz are intricately drawn and the fuzzy battle lines and alliances from week to week make it an enthralling show to watch. We are drawn completely into this violent and secluded world and most of the time, forget that these prisoners have committed horrible deeds outside of the walls of Emerald City. We empathize with many of their plights and feel bad when evil befalls some of them. The show manages to be engaging, dark, disturbing, and at times, amusing and the writers are to be commended for adding some sinister humor to the mix in order to show that even in Emerald City, convicted felons need a release every now and again.
I’ll give you a quick introduction to the second season straight off the back of HBO’s glorious Season Two box: "All that glitters is not Emerald City. Following the bloodbath that ended the prison riot, life is returning to far from normal for those who survived in the experimental unit of OZ. The Aryan Schillinger still butts heads with Beecher. The mob, led by Schibetta, continues to find its business cut into by the cold-hearted Adebisi. Warden Glynn and Tim McManus struggle to do the right thing for their prisoners, facing adversity at every turn from Governor Devlin. New prisoners include the sexually provocative child killer Shirley Bellinger and a guilty priest who will be forced to pay a terrible penance. The world of OZ will shatter your expectations in a new season where safety is not an option."
The second season begins where the first one ended, so let’s jump right in to the new episodes.
The Tip (Original Air Date: July 11, 1998): In the aftermath of the deadly riot that ended Season One, OZ is under complete lockdown and the prisoners are either sent to solitary or into the general population. A special committee is formed to investigate the riots and to see if it was appropriately handled by all involved – including Governor Devlin (Zeljko Ivanek) – and the committee is headed up by a law school dean, Alvah Case (Charles S. Dutton). He spends his time questioning the inmates and employees of the prison and learns that the death of one of the prisoners was no accident, but murder. However, will the truth cause more damage than the cover-up?
Ancient Tribes (Original Air Date: July 20, 1998): Ten months after the riots, Emerald City reopens and McManus (Terry Kinney) decides to offer GED classes to the inmates to keep them busy, as well as form an inmate council in hopes that order can be restored and inmates might gain a better understanding of each other. Schibetta (Eddie Malavarca) learns from O’Reily (Dean Winters) that Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) killed his father and as Schillinger’s (J.K. Simmons) parole hearing nears, his adversary, Beecher (Lee Tergesen), steps up his harassment in order to screw things up for him before his hearing. Warden Glynn’s daughter is raped by a group of Latinos and in return, he takes it out on Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo). In a strange diagnosis, O'Reily learns that he might have breast cancer.
Great Men (Original Air Date: July 27, 1998): Alvarez learns the identity of Glynn’s daughter’s rapist, but won’t reveal it, while Wangler (J.D. Williams) is making a lot of progress in school, but continually catches abuse from his roommate, Adebisi. When it’s learned that Augustus Hill’s (Harold Perrineau) judge accepted bribes, Kareen Said (Eamonn Walker) agrees to help Hill in getting a new trial. O’Reily gets treatment for breast cancer, while Schillinger arranges for a hit inside of Emerald City in order to get the Aryans some respect. Also, a new inmate arrives in OZ, as Shirley Bellinger (Kathryn Erbe), a female, arrives, awaiting execution for killing her own daughter.
Losing Your Appeal (Original Air Date: August 3, 1998): Said unsuccessfully defends Augustus at his trial and his appeal is denied. However, Said has better luck in another arena, as he and McManus work together to get Poet’s (Mums) work published. O’Reily survives his breast cancer treatment and reveals his true feelings for Dr. Nathan (Lauren Velez). Beecher meets with the judge who sentenced him to prison and Schibetta offers Alvarez a piece of his drug trade business inside of Emerald City in exchange for his agreeing to kill Adebisi.
Family Bizness (Original Air Date: August 10, 1998): The warden comes clean with some really juicy information that Schibetta has been holding over his head for some time and it drastically changes the relationship dynamic between the two. Poet’s publication helps him get his parole, but it doesn’t make enough of an impression on Governor Devlin, as he has McManus’ education budget cut. Beecher receives some really shocking news about his wife and Keller (Christopher Meloni) unsuccessfully tries to comfort him. O’Reily gets his brother Cyril (Scott William Winters) to agree to kill Dr. Nathan’s husband in an attempt to get closer to her and Adebisi fails at his attempt to poison Schibetta.
Strange Bedfellows (Original Air Date: August 17, 1998): Schibetta slowly recovers from his poisoning, but is brutally raped by Adebisi during his recuperation. This sets retribution in motion, as Schibetta makes plans to have Adebisi killed. A new inmate arrives in OZ, Jiggy (LL Cool J), and he claims to be Governor Devlin’s crack dealer. Said convinces him to go public with the information and it leads to a confrontation in the media between Jiggy and the governor. Jiggy ultimately loses and is sent back to “gen pop”. Alvarez loses his hold on the Latino population inside of OZ to Raoul Hernandez (Luis Guzman) and Sister Reimondo (Rita Moreno) learns that Giles (Austin Pendleton) murdered the man that killed her husband. Schillinger continues down his path to tear down Beecher (Lee Tergesen) and he also wants Said’s help to get him out of jail, but Said ultimately refuses. O’Reily is confronted by Dr. Nathan about her husband’s murder.
Animal Farm (Original Air Date: August 24, 1998): O’Reily’s brother, Cyril, is sentenced to OZ and gets a “rude” welcome from Schillinger. Alvarez, hungry to regain power and respect in the eyes of the Latino gang, is told by Hernandez that he must brutally attack a guard. The new Wiseguys leader, Nappa (Mark Margolis), wants Adebisi to pay dearly for raping his godson, Schibetta and a catholic priest who molested young boys prepares for his release. Poet returns to Emerald City after a violent run-in with an old enemy while out on parole.
Escape from Oz (Original Air Date: August 31, 1998): Officer Whittlesey (Edie Falco) is transferred to “gen pop” and is replaced by a Nazi, Karl Metzger (Bill Fagerbakke) – and he gives Schillinger and the Aryans a bit more room to maneuver. Some of the Aryans are killed while trying to escape OZ via a tunnel and it gives Hill the idea of trying to escape in a coffin. In a fit of rage, Alvarez rips out Officer Rivera’s (Nelson Vasquez) eyes and is sent to solitary for life and in order to save Rivera’s life, O’Reily agrees to a blood transfusion in exchange for having his brother, Cyril, transferred to Emerald City. Keller and Schillinger reveal some devastating information to Beecher while breaking both of his arms and legs and Adebisi finds hope through a fortuneteller, Kipekemie Jara (Zakes Mokae) that has been transferred to Em City. However, when Wangler murders Jara by order of Nappa, Adebisi is so distraught that he’s admitted to the psychiatric ward. Said receives a pardon from Governor Devlin, but turns it down in order to return to Emerald City.
The events just described should be tough to follow for the uninitiated only, as Fontana and company have successfully expanded and moved forward the Oz universe in such a way that it leaves you salivating for the next season. If you’ve followed Oz at all, you know that single events have the power to reverberate throughout multiple shows and seasons, and it’s always fun to see what happens next. Season two was a triumph on many levels and while certain moments seemed gratuitous or simply didn’t work, Oz has plenty of momentum to carry itself into the next season – or at least the next season on DVD, Season Three.
Currently, only Fox rivals HBO in their uncanny ability to release seasons of shows in incredible sets that are literally devoured by fans. Warner is getting on the bandwagon and obviously, that’s a good thing for all of us DVD fans. However, HBO was a trailblazer in this arena and they’re still going strong. Here’s looking forward to the soon-to-be-released 3rd season of Oz that I’m sure will be as great as the first two.