Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Time of the Season: S1 – S3 of Oz (’97-’99)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 19, 2008

Oh-weee-oh, we-ohhhhh-oh…

When it comes to Pay Cable drama, it’s hard not to think of The Sopranos as the sort of Big Bang–it’s the show (along with comedy Sex & the City) that permanently put the channel on the map, that elevated it from a low-class, hotel-viewing-only station to a genuine TV powerhouse. It got all the ratings, won all the Emmys, made all the hedway in pop culture. But I guess it wasn’t really the first–for that we have Oz, which debuted about a year and a half before The Sopranos, and arguably forged even further into uncharted territory than HBO’s signature show.

Oz is a bleak, bleak fucking show. At least the sociopathic monsters in The Sopranos have the decency to dress up their evil in nice clothes, big smiles and warmhearted joking–on Oz they are given the permission to run rampant, and the moral black hole that the show seems to exist in also means that no one ever escapes for long. Jail sucks. To call it gritty would be something of an understatement (considering Tom Fontana–one of the creators of Homicide–and his Executive Producer credit, it’s hard to consider that too surprising)–there’s probably a rider in actors’ contracts that makes them sign off on both showing full frontal and getting shived at least once each before their contract is over.

No more is Oz‘s trailblazing streak evident than in its ensemble cast, which, simply put, would create an acting pool from which nearly every important TV drama to follow would draw. There’s The Sopranos itself, of course (Edie Falco), LOST (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Harold Perrineau), Dexter (Lauren Velez, supposedly David Zayas next season), The Wire (J.D. Williams, Seth Gilliam), even Law & Order: SVU (Christopher Meloni, B.D. Wong). Hell, one of the guys from 30 Rock (Dean Winters) is even in there. It’s amaazing to think of the shows that might not have been possible had this pack of actors not had their careers launched by Oz.

OK, so influence, importance, innovation, blah blah. And the answer to that is definitely yes–I was able to power through three seasons in a week, not bad even though that only makes a total of 24 episodes. Over those seasons, the show wasn’t always compelling–too much repetitive feuding, too many beefs that don’t really amount to anything, and a too-confined setting for such a wide cast (it’s remarkable what a difference geographical diversity can make in a visceral drama like this–see Deadwood for another show whose sparsity of scenery also got quickly frustrtating). And some of the dramatic right turns that characters take, seemingly unprovoked, over the course of the series, can be extremely frustrating.

Still, it’s hard not to like a show not only with drama this heightened, and with a cast this wide. Dean Winters’ Ryan O’Reilly was probably my favorite, for the first season at least–possibly the most manipulatively self-serving character in screen history, at least until he falls in love and his brother joins him jail and sorts of other things leave him unfortunately mellowed out. J.K. Simmons and Lee Tergesen also deserve props for their roles as Aryan asshole Vern Schellinger and quickly-crushed new guy Tobias Beecher–the feuds the two have over the course of the three seasons make for some of its most riveting moments. And like McNulty on The Wire, Terry Kinney’s Tim McManus is the glue keeping it all together, the sympathetic but highly flawed (especially in the sexual department) core of the show.

I’m a little too tired right now to right more on the show, and it probably deseres better, but to sum up: On the whole, I really only come away from Oz thinking one thing: I really, really, really don’t want to go to prison. So I guess it’s a success.

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3 Responses to “Time of the Season: S1 – S3 of Oz (’97-’99)”

  1. Kristie said

    Here are a few more additions to your acting pool:

    –Dean Winters was also in Law & Order: SVU & Dexter, and David Zayas has been in both seasons of Dexter.
    –Erik King was also in Dexter.
    –JK Simmons was in Law & Order: SVU also.

  2. Anton said

    I think Tom Fontana and Dick Wolf must have been friends. Ignoring even the one-episode cross overs between Lawrder and Oz actors, and on top of all of the ones mentioned already, the girl who plays the psycho murderer with whom Adebisi briefly falls in love is Vincent Donofrio’s partner in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Oz’s lovable Latino street rat, Alvarez played one of the lead roles in Law & Order: Trial by Jury (the one that nobody watched).

  3. Kristie said

    I made a mistake in my above statement. It was Scott Winters who has appeared in Dexter.

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