How Oz Defined HBO Productions

There be spoilers ahead

Oz was one of those shows that I knew existed but had heard very little about. When I found out it was created by HBO I automatically knew I’d like it – because if there’s one thing HBO doesn’t do then that is bad TV programmes. I soon found out that OZ was the first hour long HBO production and was so popular that it ran for six seasons.

So, how does Oz stack up against some of the most notable HBO productions? Did it influence the shows we know and love today? And why the hell haven’t I heard of it sooner?!

Oz (Oswald State Correctional Facility) is a fictional maximum security prison with most of the central characters based in the experimental Emerald City prison unit. Its purpose is to provide a controlled environment for the violent prisoners, but if there is one thing you’re quick to learn is that there’s no stopping this gang of dangerous criminals. While the show has many references to the Wizard of Oz – it will take more than a pair of glittery red shoes to escape this place.

Oz is basically an amalgamation of some of the best characters in television history, as it’s filled with a range of recognisable faces from HBO shows such as The Wire, Band of Brothers and The Sopranos, as well as several characters from Dexter, Lost, 30 Rock and umpteen films.

One of the most notable characters of the series – and it would be a crime to leave him out – is Augustus Hill (some of you may know him as Michael from Lost) who is a central character throughout the epic series and the narrator of the show. The wheelchair bound murderer had a tough time in Oz and was known as the guy whose heart was always in the right place. While many people who haven’t seen the show would find it difficult to have sympathy for a drug addict and a cop killer, you couldn’t help but admire Augustus and hope that there really were criminals out there like him.

His monologues and character introductions created a whole new dimension to the show, and whilst they often had no direct relation to the stories they often reflected the theme of each episode. I occasionally ask myself whether HBO would use this storytelling method nowadays, and I honestly don’t think they would. It was created in the late 90s – a decade which loved the voice-over; if you don’t believe me then just take a look at Ally McBeal, The Wonder Years or Sex and the City. Would Oz be the same show without it? Probably. But that’s not the point. No other HBO show, in my opinion, has conquered the voice over narrative quite like Oz has.

Augustus Hill

However, there are times when the monologues can become a little self indulgent and while they are an effective literary device, sometimes I feel that they are just added in to fill up a few empty minutes which could be better spent investing in the storylines. The funny monologues undoubtedly offer some light relief to the sometimes dark scenes, but the surreal segments can be too bizarre and occasionally isolate the audience.

The unique thing about Oz is that it’s different to most TV series which are formed on A, B and C characters. The programme does have central characters which you invest in, but there isn’t really one clear protagonist or antagonist – which is probably part of its beauty as they’re all each other’s antagonists. I can practically hear my Creative Writing lecturers screaming at me never to do this – but sometimes doing something different can create something wonderful.

No-one would kill off Tony Soprano in the third season out of six because there would be no show.  Dexter wasn’t going to get caught killing criminals in the first season or there would be no reason to watch it. Liz Lemon is not going to get sacked as Head Writer of the Girly Show because then the format would be screwed. But when it comes to Oz, you should always expect the unexpected. One minute you’re in love with a character, the next minute they’re lying on the floor in a pool of blood – heck, they even killed off the narrator!

The show can sometimes be like a conveyor belt though and they continually feel the need to add in new characters to keep the show fresh – and it works to an extent. However, there can be times where you invest yourself in a character’s story only for them to be killed off after their second or third episode and you won’t hear of them ever again. For example, a priest who was convicted of being a paedophile stayed at Oz to keep safe from society and was killed by an inmate the very same night. Nothing happened to the murderers and his death was never mentioned again. Was this a social comment? Maybe. But it can, at times, be slightly frustrating and is something which the HBO shows following the Oz series have seemingly avoided.

You also won’t watch character transformations quite like it – how often can you watch a straight, quiet lawyer get raped by a Nazi an then fall in love with an Italian man who breaks his legs? Not often. In any other programme you just wouldn’t buy into its absurdity, but I honestly think aliens could move into Emerald City and I’d still believe it. Two of the prisoners were taken over by the Devil and I never even batted an eyelid.

So, has Oz influenced the way HBO create the programmes we know and love today. Who knows? While the show was successful, it was ultimately overshadowed by other fantastic HBO productions. It’s a great shame that it hasn’t received the commercial respect of shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire – because it is up there with the best.

Why was it overshadowed? Probably because the characters you do care about only have a few scenes an episode, so audiences probably invested their time in shows which maintained their interest the whole way through. That’s not to say this show isn’t interesting because it’s anything but boring – but without a protagonist to latch onto then there’s no urgency to switch on the programme. I often found myself searching for a protagonist which I occasionally found in the form of Tobias Beecher – but there would be some episodes when he wasn’t in the show at all. While The Wire didn’t have one protagonist, it did have four central characters (McNulty, Bubbles, Kima and Omar Little). So, Oz’s uniqueness was ultimately its curse.

I think there are some things that worked in Oz and some things that didn’t – and I think HBO learnt lessons from some of the programme’s mistakes – such as cutting out any sign of a penis (I doubt an episode of Oz went by when I didn’t see one). It was the first show of its kind and quite possibly gave HBO the confidence to put their faith into other hard-hitting dramas. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that HBO produced The Sopranos off the back of Oz and then The Wire after that. They identified the need to provide their audience with something they’ve never seen and would probably never see again.

So, is HBO as good as it was back in the late 90s to early 00s? Yes and no. The programmes are still of a consistently high standard, but there hasn’t been a HBO drama that has come close to The Wire and The Sopranos – so you can understand how excited I was to discover Oz. I just wish they’d bring it back.

Words: Lis King

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