After taking a breather following my binge through The Sopranos, I started thinking about running through another HBO series. Having them all right there thanks to Amazon Prime was just too tempting. I considered The Wire, Deadwood and Rome, but I’ve seen all three in their entirety before (and I sort of want to save The Wire as the pièce de résistance to this little endeavor). Six Feet Under is a total unknown to me, so I’m not sure I’m in the mood for that just yet. So I settled on Oz. I’d seen a sporadic handful of episodes during its original run, but barely remembered anything beyond J.K. Simmons, the guy in the wheelchair and the one Muslim dude. Yeah, this needed to be done.
And it’s kind of appropriate to follow up The Sopranos with Oz, since the two are somewhat linked. You could make a case that the success of Oz as HBO’s first original hour-long drama paved the way for The Sopranos. And the phenomenal success of The Sopranos pretty much erased Oz from the public consciousness, even if the two shows did share the air for four years. Tony and crew get all the credit for starting the TV revolution of the 21st century, and rightfully so, but the inmates of Emerald City deserve to be remembered as well.
Plus, both shows share Edie Falco, which brings me to the fun I’ve been having playing the “Hey It’s That Guy!” game with this show. It’s a veritable breeding ground for actors who went on to bigger things following their stint on Oz. You’ve got Falco and Simmons, arguably the two biggest names (although Simmons’ success would wait a number of years). Harold Perrineau and Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje went on to Lost, Dean Winters to Rescue Me, 30 Rock and the Mayhem guy for Allstate, Christopher Meloni to Law and Order: SVU, J.D Williams and Seth Gilliam to The Wire, and Mark Margolis to Breaking Bad. And then there are familiar faces like Ernie Hudson and Rita Moreno and B.D. Wong. And everyone’s doing great work. Yes, this is melodrama, so sometimes things aren’t totally realistic — I seriously doubt a warden would let a released sex offender with nowhere else to go sleep in a cell with the general population, for instance — but that’s pretty much established from the get-go. And everyone sinks their teeth into it to the fullest. Akkinuoye-Agbaje and Eammon Walker as the aformentioned Muslim dude are particular standouts, especially Akkinuoye-Agbaje. His Adebisi is all predatory physicality and roiling emotion and he’s absolutely magnetic in every scene he’s in. It’s a shame things didn’t work out for him on Lost, because that could have been legendary.
As for those stories, well, this definitely ain’t Orange is the New Black. Not that there’s no humor, but there’s also nothing even close to the grace moments of OITNB‘s more sublime episodes. These are all violent offenders who mostly make no bones about having committed their crimes, and many of whom have no hope of seeing the outside ever again. Which makes for a much more desperate and much more uninhibited environment. If you’re already facing a life sentence without parole, what’s stopping you from doing the same things inside that put you there in the first place? Which is the greatest challenge — and so far, the greatest failure — of the Emerald City within Oz’s walls; making better people out of people who have absolutely zero stake in doing so.
I’m just about to finish the third season, and I’m curious to see if any hope slips in somewhere. On the one hand, it would really fly against the show as it’s established itself, one where even small victories seem fleeting. On the other, there are people inside that do seem to deserve some kind of redemption, even if they’ll never leave the walls. It just remains to be seen if Oz has it in itself to give it to them.