THREE WAYS OZ CHANGED TELE­VI­SION FOR­EVER

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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.

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