Thursday, 16 July 2009

We're Not in Kansas Anymore... - Behind the Walls of 'Oz'

In an episode of ‘Family Guy’, Lois, mistakenly believing that dim-witted son Chris has killed a man and fearing he may go to prison for the deed, comments: “I can't call the police. I have to get rid of this body or Chris will go to prison, and we all know what happens in prison showers! I've seen ‘Oz’!"

Anyone who has seen ‘Oz’ will know exactly what the Griffin family matriarch is talking about, because this is the most brutal TV show I have ever seen. ‘Oz’ should be beamed into classrooms around the world to scare kids into keeping on the straight and narrow – you want to cut knife crime Mr. Brown? Round the punks up, make them watch a season of ‘Oz’, tell them this is their future and you watch those crime figures plummet…

Much like ‘The Wire’, ‘Oz’ didn’t glamorise crime and prison life, it depicted it as the appalling environment that it is – remember that first brilliant season of ‘Prison Break’ and multiply the brutality and grit by about a thousand and you’ll go someway to understanding just how dark and disturbing this show was.

One of the most violent shows in TV history – nearly every major character winds up dead eventually – ‘Oz’ was the first show of this nature produced by HBO (which of course went on to produce the likes of ‘Deadwood’, ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Sopranos’, to name but a few).

Its unashamed depiction of prison life – the violence, the foul language, the drugs and the sex was, unsurprisingly, controversial at a time where these vices were less commonplace on television. ‘Oz’, like so many of these subsequent controversy-courting shows, is far more layered and is about so much more than the headline-grabbing aspects that the moral brigade seized upon.

Show creator Tom Fontana had a hand in the writing of each of the 56 episodes of ‘Oz’ that were broadcast, which meant that he was able to keep his vision for the show completely within his own control and ensure that each arc went where it was supposed to.

Unlike ‘Prison Break’, ‘Oz’ very rarely strayed beyond the prison walls and on the odd occasion it does, it ironically reveals a world even more morally ambiguous than inside the Oswald State Correctional Facility.

Each episode explores a certain theme, ranging from Norse Mythology to The U.S. Postal Service and everything in between, such as family, death, sex, drugs, love, sport and the media. It is testament to the show’s philosophical depth and consistently strong writing that a show that features uncensored scenes of rape, homosexual sex, murder and drug abuse can cover so many labyrinth like themes & issues and present a more academic and grown up study than most of the supposedly high-brow TV shows out there.

‘Oz’s focus on the US correctional system’s struggles is as fascinating as its examination of the frighteningly cut throat prison hierarchy – both are equally as corrupt, only the blood on the hands of the prisoners is grimly non-metaphorical.

‘Heroes’ and ‘24’s Zeljko Ivanek played the corrupt and seemingly soulless Governor Devlin and bred a contempt for his character on a par with any of the murderous inmates within ‘Oz’ with his every appearance.

In one of the more bizarre casting choices on ‘Oz’, and believe me there are plenty, it is ‘Ghostbusters’ Winston – Ernie Hudson who is charged with overseeing the most violent prison known to man. It is often noted in the show that he is “the best man for the worst job” and when you’re Warden of a prison that makes San Quentin look like Pontins that’s a pretty ringing endorsement.

Corruption and loose morals are as rife within the ‘Oz’ guards as the prisoners, with nearly every C.O. at one point or another committing some sort of crime themselves. Of the prison’s staff, Tim McManus – the brains behind Emerald City – ‘Oz’s centrepiece and the setting for most of the action – is featured most prominently. McManus is a self-destructive womanizer but he firmly believes in prison’s capability to redeem prisoners.

Terry Kinney is great as the idealistic McManus and manages to make viewers feel both sympathy and disgust for him. While McManus believes in justice and treats the prisoners as human beings regardless of what they have done, he is egotistical and self-righteous – like so many of ‘Oz’s protagonists he is fundamentally flawed.

In addition to McManus, we also have the two people who are possibly the only ‘good’ guys in the show: Father Mukada – the prison Chaplin and Sister Peter Marie – a nun who is also the prison’s counsellor. While both are supposedly ‘good’ and ‘righteous’ both are also flawed, Mukada in particular.

Religion plays such a major role inside the walls of ‘Oz’, something that is only amplified further by the arrival of Kareem Said – a Muslim Nationalist who leads the Muslim inmates of ‘Oz’. ‘Oz’s intelligent, adult handling of each religion is one of the most refreshing and bold things I’ve witnessed on a TV screen – no one is judging and everyone is given the same opportunity – much like Emerald City tries to do for the inmates.

Religion plays a big part in the gang mentality of ‘Oz’, but not as much as race. There are the Aryans, the Homeboys, the Muslims, the Latinos, The Irish and, to a lesser extent, the Bikers.

It doesn’t matter what is on a person’s inside, the colour of their skin is enough to get them very dead, very quickly in ‘Oz’. Alliances are tentatively made and unceremoniously broken between certain gangs – but others wouldn’t piss on a rival gang member if he was on fire… in fact they’d probably throw on more gasoline.

‘Oz’s greatest triumph though, is the humanisation of these villains and tortured souls – each has their Achilles heal, even the most sadistic, hardened con is breakable. The incomparable Ryan O’Reilly goes from Machiavellian manipulator to loving brother in the space of a single episode, Nazi scumbag Vern Schillinger becomes almost sympathetic as a disapproving father dishing out tough love and then there’s ‘Oz’s single most relatable character who goes on a harrowing journey that also makes him the show’s most disturbing character.

Tobias Beecher was not prepared for prison life, a Harvard Law Graduate he was imprisoned for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and soon discovered the harsher side of prison life. He was routinely humiliated by Schillinger; the leader of the Aryans raped Beecher and branded him with a swastika, amongst other degrading acts.

Beecher eventually flipped and temporarily blinded Schillinger before shitting on his head in front of half the inmates. Beecher often remarked that ‘Oz’ made him “into the man he always was” which is a very scary commentary on just what prison life can do to one’s psyche. Beecher eventually adapts to prison life but his sanity is pushed to the brink, he loses several members of his family due to his conflicts in ‘Oz’ and embarks on a highly destructive love affair with fellow inmate Chris Keller.

Lee Tergesen’s performance as Beecher is incredibly compelling and arguably one of the best performances in the show, which in a prison filled with awesome characters is quite a compliment.

Also standing out is Dean Winters as the aforementioned Ryan O’Reilly. O’Reilly is a cerebral assassin – he orchestrates almost every death in the show’s incendiary first season, without ever spilling a drop of blood himself.

Winters captures O’Reilly’s quiet menace perfectly and O’Reilly is definitely my favourite character on the show. But in all honesty, there are great performances in practically every Emerald City pod. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (‘Lost’s Mr. Eko) is completely loco as the deranged Simon Adebisi, Kirk Acevedo is great as the man with the lives of a cat Miguel Alvarez and then there’s another ‘Lost’-‘Oz’ crossover star: Harold Perrineau, as series narrator Augustus Hill.

Hill’s role in the show has been likened to the Greek chorus in ancient theatre, providing exposition and summaries for the audience to help them follow the action. While he is incarcerated, like the other prisoners within in Em City, Hill also talks directly to the viewer, breaking the fourth wall and seemingly being omnipresent.

Perrineau excels in his role and although the Hill character sometimes makes it feel like ‘Oz’ doesn’t trust its viewers to deduce the message being carried in the episode and rather beats us over the head with it; Augustus Hill never wears out his welcome, unlike some TV narrators – I’m looking at you Carrie Bradshaw.

The turnover of characters on ‘Oz’ is almost unprecedented but unlike another show with a massive cast turnover: ‘24’, where they replace the dead with new characters, in ‘Oz’ background characters and prisoners who’ve been nothing more than glorified extras suddenly come to the fore and become important pieces of the ‘Oz’ jigsaw.

The cast of ‘Oz’ have gone on to varying amounts of success in the six and a half years since the prison was evacuated – there has been a huge crossover with another compulsive HBO show ‘The Wire’ with many of the ‘Oz’ ensemble cropping up at some point alongside McNulty and co. on the streets of Baltimore.

Shockingly none of the show’s main cast members went on to become huge stars, Dean Winters though has become a dependable TV actor – giving great performances on the likes of ‘30 Rock’ and ‘Rescue Me’, and for my money would have made a hell of a lot better Max Payne than Mark Wahlberg.

Acevedo and Tergesen have also carved out nice TV careers along with the aforementioned actors with the ‘Lost’ ties. Arguably though, it’s J.K. Simmons (Schillinger) that has tasted the most success post-‘Oz’ with his role as Peter Parker’s rather loud editor at the Daily Bugle J. Jonah Jameson in the ‘Spider-man’ films and his appearances in ‘Juno’ and the Coen Brothers remake of ‘The Ladykillers’.

‘Oz’ has left quite a legacy behind, as I’ve already mentioned – it pioneered the HBO hour long serial drama that has since given us some of the best TV of recent times. It was also one of the first shows to give us the profanity, violence and sex that we have almost become desensitised to; ‘Oz’ is also, in my opinion, the finest prison-based narrative to ever hit the small screen… Or the big screen for that matter.

The DVD’s continue to sell well, especially here in the UK where the geniuses at Channel 4 decided to stick it in the graveyard slot and constantly change air time and day. So in this culture of multi-season box sets where shows can develop cult followings even after they end – what better time to engross yourself in one of the most disturbing, yet compellingly brilliant, shows of all time.

‘Oz’ Seasons 1 – 6 are available on Region 1 & 2 DVD now.

Other Televisual Musings this Week:

- A new pre-lottery quiz began this past weekend – ‘Guesstimation’ which is hosted by Nick Knowles and involves the contestants having to guess closest to a series of facts and statistics… i.e. Guess how many weeks it will be until this unparalleled waste of license fees is cancelled?

- It was good to see ‘Good Vs. Evil’s Richard Brooks turning up on ‘Lie to Me’ last week, he’s a charismatic guy and is capable of so much more than supporting character/suspect number four on a mediocre crime drama, but still at least he’s still on my screen… Which is more than we can say for Clayton Rohner.

Likewise, it was a pleasant surprise to see Wood Harris – a.k.a. ‘The Wire’s Avon Barksdale – turn up as a SWAT team commander on ‘House’ this week, a show which continues to surprise me in its greatness each week.

- ‘Entourage’ returns for a new series tonight (Thursday 16th July) and in spite of the fact that I completely missed season 5 (thanks again ITV2) and have as yet still been unable to get hold of it, I’m still looking forward to Vince and the gang’s return.

ITV2 have again decided that not marketing the show’s return is a good strategy (note to ITV – FX’s promotion of ‘True Blood’ which premieres Friday [10pm – make sure you watch/sky+ it!] is how you promote a new/returning show) so I’m here to tell you all to tune in for one of the simplest, yet funniest and damn entertaining shows out there.

- If I wasn't such a perv then Omar and Brother Mouzone finally catching up with Stringer and gunning him down in the penultimate episode of ‘The Wire's great third season may have made my TV moment of the week.

Elsewhere in Baltimore this week, ‘The Wire’ showed why it is one of the, if not THE, greatest shows of all time with one simple scene - as Mouzone's right-hand man visited a gay bar in search of the elusive Omar, who was in the background cutting loose but grizzled Deputy Police Commissioner Rawls.

Even if this suggested homosexuality is never referenced again it is this type of layering and interconnectivity that brings Baltimore to life in ‘The Wire’ - it was a purely brilliant moment in a show that is the most engrossing thing on TV and a nice reward for eagle-eyed viewers (read: geeks) like me.

- Charlie Brooker's ‘You Have Been Watching’ has been a very nice addition to the TV schedules - part ‘Screenwipe’ / part ‘Flipside TV’ the show seems to have been mercifully uncensored by the Baboons who run Channel 4 and Brooker has been left free of the meddling constraints that a prime time slot on one of 'the big 4' usually brings.

- The 2009 Primetime Emmy nominations were revealed today and while there were some boring choices and some outright ridiculous choices (‘The Big Bang Theory’), for the most part the nominations were relatively un-anger-inducing. Nice nods went to Kevin Dillon, who is usually royally ignored for his contribution to ‘Entourage’ while Piven takes the plaudits, and for Michael J. Fox's guest role on ‘Rescue Me’.

Bizarrely though, after giving the performance of a lifetime to save this season of ‘24’, there was no love for Carlos Bernard (yes, I know I'm biased) yet somehow Cherry Jones managed to pick up a nomination for her role as ‘24's female President - go figure.

It was nice to see ‘Flight of the Conchords’ get some love too and I'm glad it was Jemaine who got the nod for comedy actor, but who are we kidding? Come the big night we all know it's going to be ‘30 Rock’ and ‘Mad Men’ quite rightfully bogarting the little gold statues again.

TV Moment of the Week:

Eliza Dushku in dominatrix gear on ‘Dollhouse’ – great show just got a hell of a lot greater… (Plus, any excuse to publish this picture!)


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