Oz — Killer TV No.34

1997-2003, HBO
‘The worst stab wound is the one to the heart. Sure, most people survive it, but the heart is never quite the same.’ – Augustus Hill
Christopher Meloni, Ernie Hudson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Harold Perrineau Jr, Eamonn Walker, Rita Moreno, John Lurie, Terry Kinney, Betty Buckley, Kathryn Erbe, Lee Tergesen, B. D. Wong, JK Simmons, Dean Winters, Scott William Winters, Edie Falco
Identikit: At the Oswald State Correctional Facility, the Homeboys, Muslims, Wiseguys Aryan Brotherhood, Latinos and other groups mark out their territory and live on their wits, while the authorities try to keep control.

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The revolution wrought by subscription TV in the US has its roots here, with HBO’s first one-hour drama series in 1997. Set in Oz, aka the Emerald City, a penitentiary turned ‘correctional facility’, it follows the daily machinations of dangerous and lesser criminals just trying to get by, told in stark, brutal detail. The story is cleverly opened up when the usually law-abiding Tobias Beecher finds himself behind bars for a drink-driving killing – a lamb among slavering wolves, forcing audiences to think, ‘There but for the grace of god…’ Having been roomed with one of the more vicious inmates, he is then ‘saved’ by Aryan inmate Vernon Schillinger, and his life goes from bad to worse under the thumb of the predatory racist. Episodes are narrated by wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill (shot by police during his arrest), who offers insight and some wry humour, and the style is gritty cinéma-vérité. The show took advantage of the freedom in storytelling offered by premium cable, creating plots that were taboo on mainstream TV – male rape, drug use, ethic/religious intolerance, violence and homosexuality, while featuring full male nudity and bad language. The show was raw and gripping, but never captured the haul of gongs that later successes from HBO would – The Sopranos, The Wire etc. However, it lasted for six seasons and won a devoted fan base of viewers who were captivated by its freshness and honesty.
Classic episode: A Game of Checkers (season 1, episode 8) – first series finale during which an argument over a board game flares into a full-blown riot in seconds. Breathtaking episode that put all the tensions and conflicts among inmates and staff into hyperdrive.
Watercooler fact: Luke Perry, Eric Roberts, LL Cool J all made guest appearances, while cast regular Edie Falco went on to some great performances as Carmela in HBO’s The Sopranos.

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