THREE WAYS OZ CHANGED TELEVISION FOREVER
Think back to 1997.
Bill Clinton was president, Black people populated prime-time tv shows, and HBO was finding its footing. The premium cable network needed something good to separate it from everything else on television. Oz was the show that made HBO elite. In the 20 years since, prestige dramas from The Wire to Orange Is the New Black have become fruit from Oz’s tree. —Evette Dionne
1 It introduced mass incarceration into cable television.
Oz chronicled the lives of inmates, correctional officers, and politicians at and around Emerald City, a low-security unit in the fictional Oswald State Penitentiary. Never before had there been a series that laid bare the lives of incarcerated men. From their same-sex romantic relationships to their complicated backgrounds, the Emmy-nominated series humanized prisoners.
2 Oz revolutionized hour-long dramas.
Oz came before The Sopranos, The Wire, and other iconic television series that peppered the golden age. When Oz debuted in July 1997, other networks weren’t invested in dramas. Now these series—including The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad—exist in abundance.
3 It refused to shy away from the brutality of prison life.
When Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) first arrives in Emerald City, he’s raped by Vernon Schillinger (J. K. Simmons), the leader of Oz’s white supremacist group. Vernon then abuses and harasses Tobias by repeatedly raping him and forcing him to dress in women’s clothes. It’s difficult to watch, but also mirrors the dynamic that’s often present in prisons. Oz didn’t shy away from these dehumanizing aspects of prison.