It's starting to look like the big winners in the race for the perfect DVD will be television series. Even though TV is supposed to be the bratty kid brother of the movie industry, this isn't a bad thing as long as the level of quality remains as high as it has lately. Full season box sets of The X-Files, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, and Queer as Folk have been some of the most impressive releases yet. The first season of Oz, HBO's gritty prison drama, may have fewer episodes than most, with only eight, but the level of quality of the show is just as high as any of those other shows.
Oz plays a delicate game. It offers up characters with which a viewer can only sympathize by setting aside some really horrific crimes. None of the prisoners in the first season have been wrongly convicted and most are in prison for really brutal and disgusting crimes. Still, the acting and writing are so good that there are times when you can't help but feel for them. The bulk of the characters reside in Oswald State Penitentiary's high-tech Emerald City ward, a modern facility that, by using glass instead of bars, allows the guards more visual access to the inmates. This fishbowl set-up is designed to create a safer environment, but Em City manager Tim McManus (Terry Kinney) also hopes it will foster a more intimate environment where his programs can help rehabilitate the inmates. McManus, like all the characters on Oz, is extremely complex. He is both optimistic and well-intentioned, and extremely naive and unrealistic. After all, Em City is far from ideal.
In addition to more great performances than most networks boast on their entire line-ups, Oz is home to some of the most harrowing and cruel violence on television. Nothing seems cartoonish. The agony of the characters is very real and no one is ever safe. Some of the main characters don't last through the season; One well-known actor doesn't even last through the first episode. Part of the drama is that those watching for the first time never know what will happen next, so I won't reveal who gets it when. Still, some character arcs merit discussion, particularly Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), a mild mannered lawyer whose crime (vehicular homicide while driving drunk) makes him the only character without a conscious penchant for violence. The humiliation and degradation that he suffers is undeniably harsh. Throughout the season he changes, bit by bit, until by the end he in no way resembles the way he was on the outside. That's one of Oz's main observations on prison life (a concept also approached in the film Animal Factory): It takes non-violent offenders, people who maybe made one terrible mistake, and turns them into real criminals with no sympathy or compassion. It's the exact opposite of rehabilitation.
Many of the other actors bring humanity to their roles, turning stone killers into complex, deep men. Eamonn Walker brings nobleness to his Muslim imam Kareem Said but also keeps the simmering hatred and violence close to the surface. He's not the typical wise-man. J.K. Simmons' Vernon Schillinger is a despicable white supremacist who can quite down and pretend to be a reasonable person when it suits him. Dean Winters' Ryan O'Reily is a pretty boy with a lot of schemes up his sleeve. The glint in his eye tells us that he enjoys being in prison a little too much. Stephen Gevedon's Scott Ross struts through Oz with the confidence of a Hell's Angel whose life has consisted of one prison term after another. He also gets off the best line in the entire season soon after arriving in his cell. John Seda's Dino Ortolani is a mob goon with a quick temper and a strong personal sense of justice. Leon's Jefferson Keane is a real lifelong criminal whose attempt to turn around meets with tough resistance.
Harold Perrineau Jr. serves as Oz's narrator, speaking from inside a rotating glass cell. This gimmick could have flopped big time but there is something angry and desperate about his narration. He doesn't seem above the material the way most narrators do. Maybe that's because he isn't speaking as a disinterested third party, but rather as Augustus Hill, a wheelchair-bound prisoner whose condition leaves him at the mercy of the merciless inmates around him. The only flaw in this set-up is that Perrineau's role in most of the actual show is pretty limited. Still, he serves as a good audience surrogate.
Perhaps the most interesting inmate is one of the least repentant: Simon Adebisi, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, is a hulking African who uses his size and hard looks to menace everyone around him. Still, there is something in his walk and in the way he talks that is magnetic and dynamic. Akinnuoye-Agbaje has a unique presence and every scene that he's in is riveting.The prison employees are equally interesting. Rita Moreno brings real spunk and compassion to Sister Pete, and BD Wong makes Father Mukada an honest, realistic priest with serious questions about his job. Ernie Hudson plays the warden with his usual rock-solid strength, here sometimes making decisions that go against his "nice guy" type. Zeljko Ivanek's Governor Devlin is completely unsympathetic to the concerns of McManus while shrugging off allegations of his own corruption. The subtlest performance on the show comes from Edie Falco as Officer Whittlesey. Falco is a wizard at conjuring real characters in diverse roles from Laws of Gravity to Judy Berlin to The Sopranos. Her performance here has the sad quietness of many of the real officers stuck in dead end jobs with no future and no alternatives.
It's tempting to discuss the plot point of Oz but viewers should experience them for themselves. What I can say is that the show carefully builds tensions from the first moments and the season finale explodes in a riot that won't soon be forgotten. That the show makes you care so deeply about what happens (and the episode is beyond a cliffhanger) is a testament to the writing, directing, and acting.
A short, shallow behind the scenes segment is included, as well as a music video for a lame Kurupt / Nate Dogg song.