Oz: The Actual Prison is Your TV

One of my favorite TV series of all time is the short lived Canadian sitcom Twitch City. The show follows the life of a man named Curtis, who literally never leaves his apartment and watches TV all day. We’re confronted with the infinity mirror of us sitting on a couch watching TV where a guy on a couch watches TV of another guy on a couch watching TV in the starkest terms imaginable.

In one of my favorite moments in the series, Curtis discusses an episode of Gilligan’s Island. I’ve never actually seen the Gilligan episode, but apparently it involves a very fake looking octopus monster attacking the cast. Curtis points out that the thing trapping them all on the island isn’t the fake looking monster. The reason they’re acting afraid of the monster isn’t the monster. The thing trapping them on the island is us. They act afraid for our benefit. So long as we keep watching, Gilligan can’t leave the island.

And so it is with jumping the shark. Shark jumping can be accounted for in many ways-a change of writing staff, a budget cut, etc. But what we’re ultimately looking at are fictional things a la Meseeks that have passed the point of wanting to please us, have no meaning to their existence, and want to disappear but can’t because we won’t let them.

No show ever jumped the shark as dramatically as Oz, which started out as one of the best and boldest things ever shown on TV and ends with the worst series finale I’ve ever seen after 2 1/2 seasons of the worst scripted TV I’ve ever seen.

But let’s talk about the good stuff first.

Oz is noteworthy for many many reasons. It was the first hour long scripted drama that HBO ever aired and the first show to truly push the outer limits of what was allowed on premium cable vis a vis violence and sexual content. It was one of the only shows on TV at the time that spent a lot of time considering LGBTQ and black issues. It presented the most harshly critical indictment of US society seen on TV up to that point. Episodes have bizarre meandering structures uninhibited by advertisement-induced act breaks. All the innovations present in 90s cop shows like Homicide: Life on the Street are explored in a new sandbox without rules. No Oz means no Sopranos, no Wire, no Deadwood, basically TV in the 00s is an entirely different beast without Oz.

My interest in Oz is primarily due to this transitional status. The premium scripted cable drama didn’t really come into its own until a year or two later with The Sopranos, so there are many points in Oz that stand as fascinating roads not taken-what 00s TV could’ve become in some alternate universe.

Foremost among these is the strangely stage-like monologing to the camera that bookends each episode. Prisoner Augustus Hill, confined to a wheelchair, talks about something that seems random but integrates itself into the themes of a given episode. These work, but its hard to imagine them becoming a trope of prestige TV at large even though Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions often serve a similar function on The Sopranos. But even that trope was largely discarded, and the number of scenes of people talking to therapists even in shows that ostensibly about mental health are minimal. For example, Bojack Horseman is almost entirely about depression, but the only two times we see an actual therapy session are both just winking jokes about The Sopranos.

But back to Oz. Oz is an incredibly difficult show to talk about I guess because it does sit between so many contradictions and transitional points. It’s stagey where the future of prestige TV was overwhelmingly cinematic, it’s good for a while then its terrible, it makes bolder political points than any of the shows that followed it but often does so artlessly.

While the initial draw is its place in the HBO canon, the show it most reminds me of is Degrassi. Like Degrassi, the show thrives when showing long term changes in personality and character. Like Degrassi, it takes place in an institution where a wide cross section of society interacts directly because they have no choice but to be there. Like Degrassi, it loves controversial subjects-it goes there. Like Degrassi, the protagonist is a building, not a person. Like Degrassi, the cast shifts in and out all the time and there’s no person you can presume is a permanent cast member.

It’s what I guess you could call “an institution show”. While many many shows take place in institutions, few of them are so fully confined to them. In Oz, this is exaggerated to the point that we never see the prisoners do any kind of outdoor recreation-it was a conscious choice at the outset. While Degrassi was never structured to have a star or primary protagonist, it didn’t start placing 95% of the action in the high school until later on. However, like Oz leaving the prison, when Degrassi leaves the high school it suffers a drop in quality (the college storylines in season 5-6 of Degrassi: TNG are godawful.) Unlike Degrassi, which peaked early but has generally been very good in spurts for ~40 years now, when Oz jumps the shark in the middle of season 4, it never comes back.

Unlike somewhat more balanced shows that came later, pretty much everyone is awful except for the prison psychologist(played by the miraculously ageless EGOT-er Rita Moreno, who’s 88 now and still regularly doing TV.) At a certain point, the lack of a foil mixed with the showrunner’s stunned disbelief HBO would let him show (insert literally anything that ever happened on Oz here) create a perfect storm of awfulness. By the end, the characters may as well all be named Itchy or Scratchy-they exist in a pointless cycle of stabbing and/or maiming each other, but with soap opera elements Itchy and Scratchy smartly avoided.

I don’t really blame writer/creator Tom Fontana (who wrote every single episode, a rarity for US TV) for that. He was handed a blank slate, and for 4 years his boundary pushing yielded results. He made a lot of the mistakes first, at least in this context. And they can be kinda fascinating for that reason-a mistake can carry a certain fascination in its freshness. Bad is bad, but most shows don’t give us one year of great TV, much less four.

The characters show a less than hopeful view of US society. Sex-addicted, well meaning but ineffectual warden Tim McManus is both sympathetic (for the most part) but also an indictment of incremental reform, of running an inherently rotten system in a slightly more humane way. The enormous and imposing Simon Adebisi is pure ambition with seemingly nothing under it-he takes what he wants; he seems to have no god beyond his own sensory desires. Political activist Kareem Said, the only prisoner where we’re never given a flashback to the crime he committed, exists as a foil to McManus-like McManus, he sees the way to make change as being through the inside, unlike McManus he’s not stuck in a sea of bureaucracy and can’t be distracted whatever female guards the prison hires. Said is as close as we get to an outright admirable character.

If it ended after the 8th episode of season 4, Oz would’ve been just the slightest step below the HBO trinity (Wire, Deadwood, Sopranos) in the TV canon. Its inherent structural deficiencies would’ve been less noticeable. But since they are, I’m just gonna end here with my number one complaint:

Whenever we see the correctional officers at their perch looking down on the prisoners, we see rows upon rows of Sony Trinitron monitors for a CCTV surveillance system. We see picture on these TVs. Yet somehow, somebody gets murdered almost every episode, sometimes multiple people, and there’s never any video evidence or suggestion video evidence might exist.

Maybe the Trinitrons represent us?

 

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