Friday, 2 March 2007

Oz - The Complete First Season (1997)

Red Road

Tomorrow night (Saturday) sees Channel 4 doing one of their 50 Greatest marathons, this time about drama series (thanks to ThoughtWad for the early heads up), and if American HBO TV drama Oz isn't in the Top 5 then the blame lies firmly at Channel 4's door. Their ridiculous screening schedule, which broadcast this ground-breaking series in the graveyard slot, meant that this series never got the British recognition it deserved.

Without Oz there'd be no Soprano's, no Prison Break, no Lost. It's hard to believe, watching this new DVD release of the first season, that the series first aired over ten years ago. It feels just as contemporary, gritty and addictive today as it did when first broadcast.

Oz Series One screencap

The Oz of the title is the Oswald State Penitentiary, where thugs, murderers and those awaiting Death Row do their time, with the series focusing on the 'experimental' Emerald City wing which attempts to give the prisoners more freedom than is available elsewhere in the prison.

The initial late-night screenings were deemed necessary because of the subject matter - the first episode alone features anal rape, murder, brutal beatings and language that would make your mother's hair curl. The odd thing is that none of it feels gratuitous in the way it can sometimed feel on shows like The Sopranos. For some the series certainly won't be easy viewing, and certainly this is no Prison Break. If you're looking for camp 'soap opera' overtones and ridiculously good-looking cast then stick to that show rather than this. Oz is gritty, ugly and feels much more true to life than its more modern, trendier, more mass-marketed counterpart, and is a better show because of that.

Oz Series One screencap

Our way into the series is through white, middle-class lawyer Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) who is sentenced to fifteen years for vehicular manslaughter after killing a young girl in a drink-driving incident. The quiet, shy family man finds himself in a community of warring groups, and the intelligent but abusive leader of the Aryan group (played by J.K. Simmons, perhaps best known as Peter Parker's boss in the Spider-Man movies) tricks him into sharing his prison cell, only to reveal that he's a sadistic, abusive bigot who has decided to take on the new inmate as his bitch. In the first episode alone Beecher is subject to beatings, anal rape, and having a Nazi emblem tattooed onto his arse. As the series progresses through eight, tight 50-minute episodes, Beecher will go through quite a journey as he's mentally and physically humiliated to the point where he has a breakdown before changing to become the assailant rather than the victim.

But Beecher is only one of several complex and beautifully written characters we meet during the series. Each episode centres around a specific common theme, giving one or more characters the main thrust of that episode's story, with background ongoing elements to keep the viewer hooked, but thankfully never feeling like the cheap soap opera that shows like The X-Files, Lost and Prison Break became reduced to as demand for episodes rose, and time to complete quality scripts lessened. Oz is a very addictive show, and one that owes a lot to the, at the time unknown, cast but most to the superb writing. Make no mistake - this is character drama of the highest order.

Oz Series One screencap

Oz was HBO's first, and longest running, drama series. A lot of its success, at least in America (the ridiculous late night showings here in the UK meant it struggled to find an audience) is down to quality over quantity, something that more recent drama series have been unable to achieve because of the merciless demands of the TV networks that demand 24 episodes a year of their drama series. This first season of Oz comprises just eight fifty minute episodes, and the series would run for another five seasons of similar length over the next few years. But when the quality's this good, it's clear that yes, sometimes less IS more.

The only clue to the series' age (it first aired in 1997), is the 4:3 format of the picture. The picture quality is somewhat dark, grainy and gritty, but that's in keeping with the way the film was meant to be seen. It's the content, rather than the technical quality of the picture or sound that really matter here.

Oz Series One screencap

It's taken ten years for the series to reach UK shores on DVD. All six series are already available on DVD in the States, but we Brits will have to wait until May for Season Two, and then September after that for Season Three. The delay might be excusable if it meant we were getting some decent extra's, but in fact the opposite is true. Where the American discs have commentaries and special features, the British version gets absolutely na-da, not so much as a TV teaser trailer or on-set photo's. Yet again we get ripped off big time, so if you have a Region 1 DVD player, please avoid this release like the plague and buy the American versions instead. I've deducted two marks from my DVD rating because of the appallingly, shoddy release we Brits have been given. We pay twice the price for what? Extra features to be stripped off. Give me a break!

Extra's aside, this is probably the only way most of us are going to be able to see the series. For that alone this DVD set gets a Highly Recommended, but if you can play the American releases they'd warrant an 'Essential purchase' rating instead.

Oz Series One screencap


Stephy said...


i was a little disappointed knowing, shillinger survived so damn long!!

Hulk Chopper Read said...

Still one of my favourite series ever.
I originally discovered it in season 2, due to Channel 4's lack of promotion.
I didn't have a clue what it was, just saw 'Oz' in the listings and thought it was a series based on the Wizard.
How pleasantly surprised was I!
Adebisi lives!