Like many Netflix subscribers, I assume, I paid only glancing attention to the on-demand video offerings of Amazon Prime, the online shopping giant’s streaming video wing.
But then a funny thing happened — well, it wasn’t funny to me, but you might laugh: I did some kind of 30-day-free-trial thing to get free shipping on an Amazon purchase … and forgot to cancel it.
Once I got tired of kicking myself, I decided to see whether Amazon Prime included anything that might help me rationalize my goof. I dimly remembered reading about the deal that had put certain old HBO programming onto the service. I even more dimly remembered a friend, nearly 15 years ago, recommending Oz, a critically acclaimed series about prison life.
And there it was on Amazon Prime: the whole six-season series.
I am now about halfway through Season 4, and, wow, I think I am the most ardent decade-plus-late fan ever.
Oz debuted on HBO way back in 1997 and is now frequently credited as the granddaddy of what’s come to be regarded as television’s New Golden Age: Made with total disregard for the mores of commercial television, it featured high production values, complex plots that played out over multiple hourlong episodes, and rated-R levels of harsh realism (in terms of language, violence, and nudity). This was definitely cinematic television.
But what’s really striking about watching the show now is how much more radical it is than its successors. The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad — they all feature what we can politely call mature themes, and story lines that treat the audience as intelligently engaged rather than seekers of the distracting fluff of traditional network television.
On the other hand, there was invariably something likable about the anti-heroes of those shows, along with intermittent moments of humor and humanity.
Oz, in contrast, has proved to be completely relentless. The first season in particular is devoid of truly sympathetic characters. The prison bloc’s mastermind and overseer, and basically the show’s central character, espouses an intellectually enlightened set of ideas about incarceration — but he’s pretty much a jerk: arrogant, self-righteous, and un-charming, with an almost pathological lack of empathy. At least he doesn’t actually shank or rape anyone, as most everybody else on the show does, but you wouldn’t want to have lunch with him.
Another principal character — a white-collar lawyer and thus arguably the most “relatable” figure for a typical HBO viewer — responds to prison life with an off-putting combination of whimpering cowardice, followed by rank depravity.
Meanwhile, the show’s structure is punctuated with crazy interstitial narration that plays out in stagey set pieces that feel more appropriate to some 1990s East Village experimental theater than major-league television.
In subsequent seasons, that narrator character becomes (so far) a genuinely well-intentioned and semi-relatable figure, along with a few others. But otherwise the darkness runs rampant. Any gesture of goodwill is sure to turn into an evil trick — or to be interpreted as such, resulting in yet another crushing and violent betrayal. There’s seldom anyone to root for.
Possibly it sounds crazy to express admiration for such a show, but grim as it may be, the writing is amazing. And watching it has revealed to me that for all the sophistication of more recent Golden Age programming, today’s shows have all dialed it back from the experimental risks of Oz. I’m a fan of Orange Is the New Black, for instance, and certainly it’s bold in its explorations of moral ambiguity and the perverse effects of prison life. On the other hand, it’s often funny, and regularly spiked with moments of genuine warmth and humanity. It’s ultimately easy to watch.
It’s fascinating, then, to look back on Oz now, and admire its determination to do, and be, something genuinely new — and to be hard to watch. It’s probably just as well that its Golden Age successors adjusted the formula. But I am really enjoying the chance to appreciate the uncut original, for what it was.
Finally, an unreturned package that went my way for once.