The SmarK DVD Rant for Oz Season One
– Oz is one of those shows that you’re generally going to “get” immediately, or not at all. Technically speaking, it’s an serial drama taking place in a maximum security prison, but wrestling fans will immediately recognize it for what it truly is: Soap opera for men.
Now, Canadian TV rights and schedules tend to be weird compared to the US, and this show is no different â€” the Canadian rights are owned by the eclectic artsy-channel Showcase, and they started showing it about a year after it debuted on HBO in the States. I personally didn’t get into it until the second season, as I was only vaguely aware of its existence until that point. Like many other fans of the show, I was drawn in by the strange, and yet perfectly believable, relationship between inmates Beecher and Keller, and the stories were structured in such a way that I became more and more curious as to what had happened to Tobias Beecher to make him into the person he was becoming in the second season. That was pretty much all it took to hook me on the show for good, and from there I became hooked on Law & Order as a result of following certain actors from Oz to Law & Order. In fact, many of the actors on Oz crossed over onto Law & Order, and other shows filmed in the New York area.
Originally pitched to HBO by creator Tom Fontana (formerly of Homicide: Life on the Street) as an hour-long drama about life in a medium security prison (to be called “Club Med”), HBO instead suggested a harder-edged series about a maximum security prison. Oz was thus born.
The show itself is, at heart, the story of one inmate living in a world he was totally unprepared to be in. Lee Tergeson plays Tobias Beecher, a lawyer with a drinking problem who killed a young girl while driving under the influence, and was made into an example by the judicial system. He is assigned to spend 5 years at Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary (or “Oz” for short) and finds himself part of an experimental living arrangement called “Emerald City”, with more freedom for the prisoners, but more rules and regulations to live by as a tradeoff. Em City is the brainchild of Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), and he is the main authority figure in the prison, maintaining an office in the same area as his prisoners and frequently mingling with them. But all that is just the backdrop for what Oz is really about â€” a brutal look at prison life and how human beings are forced to change their whole social and moral value system in order to cope with it.
The main storyline involves Beecher, as he is originally assigned to live with a black inmate, only to be “rescued” from certain beatings and rape by Vern Schillinger (JK Simmons, Law & Order’s Emil Skoda). Unfortunately, the shining white armor turns out to be a bedsheet, as Vern quickly initiates Beecher into the Nazi brotherhood with a crudely-applied tattoo and a systematic breaking down of Beecher’s self-esteem and will. The first season’s biggest storyline follows Beecher as he adjusts to life as Vern’s plaything, before building to a climax where he finally discovers what he has to do to cope, and Schillinger pays the price for it when it happens. The other big storyline involves tensions in the prison building towards a riot, providing the guards and support staff with many headaches from increasingly-pissed prisoners as a direct result of the government cutting funds to the prison.
The narrative structure of the stories is fairly unique, as each episode is tied together by a theme (provided by wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill, who does interludes from a sort-of invisible box, while also playing a character in the show) and new characters are introduced with name and crime committed, almost turning them into numbers rather than people. It’s cool and yet dehumanizing at the same time, which I guess is the intention â€” it’s hard to get too attached to people who are going to be killed shortly after anyway.
Other major characters passing through the first season include
– Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson, the black guy from Ghostbusters), a former guard himself who is torn between keeping peace in the prison and placating Governor Devlin’s demands for lower expenses.
– Diane Wittlesley, played by Edie Falco of the Sopranos, who acts as head guard for Emerald City and turns into the first of many sexual conquests for Tim McManus. She has secrets from her past which tie her to certain prisoners closer than she’d like, and by the end of the season it becomes a major issue.
– Minister Karim Said (Eamonn Walker), a radical Muslim leader who torched a warehouse full of people in the name of Allah, and who ends up running the Muslim faction of the prison and providing the guards with many problems as a result. He tends to serve as the moral center for the prisoners, although like everyone else, he is far from innocent.
– Miguel Alvarez, played by Kirk Acevado, a third-generation prison-dweller who looks to have his life in prison before it can even get started.
– Ryan O’Reilly, played by Dean Winters, a shit disturber of the first order and the character who developed into one of my favorites on the show over the years. He always has an angle to play and a plan to keep things going his way, and Beecher uses him for comfort (and drugs) as his problems with Schillinger worsen.
This 3-disc set includes all 8 episodes from the first season, and they are:
– The Routine. The debut ep for the show introduces the cast and regulars, as well as the resident mafia boss â€” Nino Schibetta. The first killing sees wiseguy Dino Ortoloni getting iced, and repercussions immediately result for the other prisoners. Immediately powerful and gripping TV, the blood starts flowing early and the show doesn’t let go of you until the end.
– Visits, Conjugal and Otherwise. The governor makes his first arrogant and dumb move (of many to come), banning conjugal visits and sending tensions among the prisoners into the stratosphere. Johnny Post is killed by gang-banger Jefferson Keane, which sets off a chain of events that lead to Keane’s execution later in the season.
– God’s Chillin. Keane goes to Said and asks to give himself to Allah in order to save his soul, but it’s not enough to save his life. Meanwhile, the Warden desperately wants peace and asks the three biggest leaders of the gangs to cut out the violence, lest everyone be punished.
– Capital P. Jefferson Keane is executed, and the violence escalates despite Glynn’s pleas.
– Straight Life. Trying to stop the flow of drugs into the prison proves to be more dangerous than the drugs themselves, as an undercover agent pays for the infiltration with his life. Also, Tim and Dianne find solace with each other while the prison goes to hell.
– To Your Health. Beecher’s humiliation at the hands of Schillinger reaches its highest point, as he’s forced to dress like a woman and sing torch songs at the talent show. The black faction of the prison feeds Nino ground-up glass, giving him a case of heartburn that ends up needing more than Tums. And Said suffers a heart attack due to stress, but won’t take pills because his religion forbids drugs of any kind.
– Plan B. Beecher finally goes insane and fights back against Schillinger, triggering a war that rages until this very day. Serial killer Donald Groves tries to kill Glynn, but fails, and gets executed as a consolation prize. I’m personally saddened that they killed Groves off, because he was one of the neatest characters on the show. Dianne is blackmailed by Schillinger’s buddy Scott Ross, who also happens to be a buddy of her ex-husband.
– A Game of Checkers. The famous “riot episode”, as a game of checkers in Em City escalates into a full-scale riot that nearly destroys the prison and ends with the SORT team being sent in shooting tear gas and McManus acting as a hostage right in the line of fire. The season ends on a cliffhanger, as we don’t know who lives or dies as a result.
Overall, the first season of Oz was kind of gut-wrenching TV that pretty much refuses to let you look away, throwing violent twists and turns at you along with the kind of morbid humor that keeps the show from getting too depressing amidst all the killing. As a warning, this show is NOT for kids â€” it’s filled with frequent graphic violence (and I mean GRAPHIC), rape, and things that would give most people nightmares, even those OVER 18. As Tom Fontana notes in the commentary, there are no innocents in this prison â€” everyone who is there deserves to be there, most of them for a long time. And yet despite that, the show is still about finding redemption in the strangest places and what people will do to survive in that kind of environment. It also produces some of the most complex characters ever seen, like Tobias Beecher and his transformation into anti-hero making him into a more, and yet less, likable person at the same time. Or Alvarez, who is basically a bad person, but wants to be a good person. Unfortunately he has a habit of killing people.
I don’t think it’s quite as good as the awesome second season â€” which focused on the bizarre love story between Beecher and Keller â€” but it’s still head and shoulders above most of the other sappy dramas that were being pumped out by network TV at the time, and despite its occasional dips into self-parody as of late, remains one of the most powerful shows on TV, setting the stage for shows like The Sopranos as a result. Truly an unrecognized classic that is only gaining its due as of late.
Shot on film and intended for a high-quality look, it delivers just that. The drab, colorless look of the prison world is well-represented and completely intentional, and the picture is excellent throughout with good contrast and color levels.
Remastered into 5.1 surround, the show is mainly dialogue and doesn’t really make much use of it. A nice touch, but one that’s not needed, as the surrounds and subwoofer are barely used.
Quite a bit here, actually, compared to most TV releases.
– Audio commentary on episodes 1 and 2 by creator Tom Fontana and actor Lee Tergeson. Lee and Tom are obviously friends who have worked together before, as they have an easy rapport and Fontana relates the fascinating story of how the show came together and the challenges involved in bringing it to life. Tergeson has some funny stories about shooting in the cramped cells, especially when it comes to having cameramen wedged into a close area when you’re trying to do an intimate scene with another guy. Season two apparently has more with them, and I’m anxious to hear it.
– An interesting featurette about the behind-the-scenes stuff on the show, and you get to see that indeed they’re shooting in Emerald City as-is. Nothing earth-shaking.
– Deleted scenes that don’t add much to the show, but do develop the Italian characters a bit more. So if you’re a Nino Schibetta fan, there ya go.
– Music video for “Behind the Walls”.
The Film: *****
The Video: ****
The Audio: **
The Extras: **