Binge Watchin’ TV Review: Oz

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Welcome to Binge Watchin,’ where we take a look at some of the best TV shows available on streaming or disc that have a great catalogue of seasons to jump into and get sucked into the beautiful bliss of binge watching! From crime, action, comedy, drama, animation, etc., we’ll be evaluating an assortment of shows that will hopefully serve as a gateway to your next binge experience.

Series: Oz

Number of Seasons: 6

Where to watch: HBO Go, CraveTV (Canada), Amazon Prime, Google Play, DVD

What’s the show about? :

The lives of the inmates and staff of Oswald State Correctional Facility, a maximum security penitentiary and home to the most violent offenders in the state. Specifically, the focus is on “Emerald City”, an experimental unit run by Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson) and unit manager Tim McManus (Terry Kinney) that encourages rehabilitation rather than strict punishment. The unit is composed of a careful balance of racial groups, including the Black Muslims, run by Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker), the Italians, run by Nino Schibetta (Tony Musante) and later Antonio Nappa (Mark Margolis), the Aryan Brotherhood, run by the psychotic Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), the Latino mob and outliers like prison strongman Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Irish drug-runner Ryan O’Reilly (Dean Winters), and convicted drunk driver Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) whose transformation is one of the show’s main plotlines. Paralyzed inmate Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau Jr.) serves as the show’s narrator and Greek chorus.

Why should I watch?:

It’s been said again and again that we’re living in a new Golden Age of TV drama, and you’re not going to get an argument from me. While most point towards HBO’s THE SOPRANOS as the show that kick-started the cable drama revolution, in reality OZ was the one that started it all. Premiering on HBO in the summer of 1997 (two and a half years before THE SOPRANOS), OZ was HBO’s big stab at TV drama. It wasn’t their first show but it was the first one that really pushed the boundaries of what was accepted on television. Being an ultra-realistic look into the concrete jungle that is the modern American prison, OZ was unlike anything on the air at the time. Heck, even close to twenty-years-later, it’s strong stuff with full-frontal nudity, graphic violence (including rape sequences that make DELIVERANCE look tame) and bad language that would make Al Swearengen blush.

OZ was such a terrifying look at prison life that it likely scared a whole generation of men straight. I remember watching the show late on Friday nights on the Canadian channel Showcase, and being absolutely terrified any time J.K. Simmons’ Aryan Neo-Nazi rapist Vern Schillinger appeared on-screen. Last September, I actually got to have a beer with Simmons at a party celebrating the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) screening of WHIPLASH, and he was amused when I told him that I watched the show as an impressionable teenager (he was actually a super nice guy and one of the most approachable celebrities I’ve ever met). One thing I didn’t tell him (because it would be too pathetic) is that ever since that first viewing of OZ he’s scared the crap out of me, even in innocuous fare like JUNO and the SPIDER-MAN movies. He was just that good, and it’s no surprise that the evil (but sometimes slightly sympathetic) Schillinger launched his career – to the point that he now seems on the cusp (I hope) of winning a long-overdue Oscar.

However, Simmons is just one guy in an absolutely incredible ensemble of actors that, to my mind, has yet to be beat on HBO or otherwise. The star of the show is arguably Lee Tergesen as Tobias Beecher, a wealthy-lawyer who killed a child in a drunken car wreck and has been made an example of by the courts. Sentenced to a stretch in super-max, the low-key Beecher is literally a lamb among wolves, and within his first day at Oz he’s been made Schillinger’s sex slave, although he gets even later. The back and forth between him and Schillinger is one of the more unpredictable parts of the show, as is Beecher’s later relationship with Christopher Meloni’s Keller, a possibly psychotic inmate who also harbors a weird kind of love for Beecher, which is actually (at times) requited.

But pretty much everyone here has a major arc, all of which play out in immensely satisfying (and usually violent) fashion. The only character who comes up short is Edie Falco’s stoic guard Diane Whittlesey, which is understandable as she was snagged for THE SOPRANOS after season three. The writing by Tom Fontana (who made his bones on HOMICIDE: LIFE OF THE STREETS) is impeccable, going toe-to-toe with the work of more celebrated show runners like David Chase (THE SOPRANOS), Matthew Weiner (MAD MEN), Terrence Winter (BOARDWALK EMPIRE), David Simon (THE WIRE) and more. This is a rough show to watch, but it’s an essential one.

Best Season:

This is a tough one. Being so-concerned with the day-to-day minutia of prison life, OZ isn’t really focused on arcs, with each episode having the potential of a favorite character being killed. The first episode demonstrates that, with the focus being on a day-in-the-life of inmate Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda) who’s killed before the credits roll. Probably the first season is the most compelling, with Beecher’s suffering and eventual revenge against Schillinger being the most powerful arc. But later seasons are just as good, showing that Beecher’s violent victory has dire consequences that will follow him beyond the end of his sentence.

Final Thoughts:

Clearly, OZ is not light viewing. It takes a strong stomach to be able to work your way through the increasingly brutal seasons, with very little in the way of light at the end of the tunnel or redeeming behavior from either the inmates or the guards (even Hudson’s stoic Warden reveals a slightly sadistic streak in later seasons following a family tragedy). Yet, like THE WIRE, OZ at its best is truly transformative TV. It’ll change the way you look at the world around you and – most disturbingly – will make you relate and even sympathize with people that seem like monsters on the surface, but underneath it all are just people – capable of both good and bad (although in the case of Schillinger – mostly just bad). It'll also encourage you to stay on the straight and narrow, lest you end up like the poor soul below:


Seinfeld in Oz by renzo433



About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.