The HBO hit series Oz, created by Tom Fantana, takes a dramatic look at the gritty life behind bars of a maximum security male prison. Emerald City is the name of the unit that is home to a mixture of guys that got caught up in the life of crime for various reasons. Tim McManus, the manager of the unit, designed the environment as an experiment into the possible rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals. Gangs are forced to live together in a way that promotes peace among otherwise conflicting people. However, inevitable power struggles among individuals and rival groups keep the tensions high throughout their time served behind bars. Central characters in the series are given opportunities to redeem themselves and prove that they are good men deep down, but most fall into the downward spiral of failure.
Conflicts Between and Inside of Gangs
Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson) and Tim McManus (Terry Kinney) struggle to keep incidents to a minimum so that every inmate feels safe inside the penitentiary. Homeboys, Aryans, Muslims, Latinos, Bikers and the Wiseguys always find a way to butt heads with their rivals while at the same time dealing with internal power struggles. Representative members that are considered leaders are often faced with the most conflict when there is any type of disagreement. The efforts to keep drugs and cigarettes out of Emerald City is a major driving force creating tension. Each gang wants to control the power and profit of having the monopoly on illegal dealing. People with no affiliation, guards and other employees are never safe from the dangerous power struggle of day-to-day prison life. The reality of being within the walls of the Oswalt State Correctional Facility is that anyone can be caught in the crossfire that may result in fatal consequences.
An exceptionally talented ensemble cast represent members of gangs and social groups that are trapped behind bars together during their years in prison. There are very few cut and dry portrayals on the show. In fact, most of the characters that live through the seasons go through major changes. Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau Jr.) is the wheelchair-bound narrator telling the story of Oz through his own eyes. It is clear from the series premiere that no one is safe from manipulation or betrayal in Emerald City, and their lives can end without warning. Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) is a major character throughout the series that puts the viewer into a perspective of what dangers a good guy can face behind bars. He is ripped from a life of wealth and privilege and dropped into a place that exposed him to things most people do not meet in nightmares. There is little distinction in regards to which group is the most evil, but the Aryans, led by Vernon Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), are a major threat to everyone they come across. Although inmates are able to seek moral guidance through Sister Peter Marie Reimondo (Rita Moreno), Father Ray Mukada (B.D. Wong) or their own religious affiliation, there is no stop to the horrific violence within the prison.
Over 30 award nominations given to the cast in individual recognition landed a total of 13 wins. Rita Moreno, Lauren Vélez (Dr. Gloria Nathan), and Eamonn Walker (Muslim leader, Kareem Said) received well-deserved recognition for their contributions to the cast. Other notable nominations were earned by Ernie Hudson, Kirk Acevedo (Latinos of El Norte member, Miguel Alvarez), and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Homeboys leader, Simon Adebisi).
Critics and Audiences Love Oz
The show is a complicated depiction of living in glass cells while being faced with the graphic reality of vulgarity, racism, drug use, rape, brutality, murder and homosexuality. There is little censorship even in scenes of violence that include such images as an inmate slicing into his own gums with a scalpel. In another scene, a living person is burned alive in the most gruesome way possible. However, this is a part of the show’s appeal that makes it difficult to watch yet impossible to walk away from. It is the first show that brought the horrors of prison into the average television consumer’s living room for a viewing experience that is both unpleasant and intriguing.
The sheer brutality along with an exceptional narrative following complex character development kept Oz alive for a full six-year run on the HBO network. There are characters that are played so perfectly that you feel real hatred toward them, and at the same time there are inmates that you can’t help but stand behind. Oz sets the bar extremely high for any series on the HBO network, and it is difficult to say that any show has been quite as impressive as far as storytelling. Scenes play out with such graphic detail that it leaves chills and emotion that most television dramas fail to deliver. Although it came to an end at the conclusion of the sixth season, you can still watch Oz online. Over 10 years since the end, it stands up to the test of time, even if you missed it during the original airing.