Return to ‘Oz’: 20 years ago, HBO released a seedy prison drama that changed the rules of TV forever

Twenty years ago today, HBO went to prison and changed the course of television history. Oz, the network’s first foray into hourlong scripted drama, was the opening shot in a cultural revolution. Created by Tom Fontana, whose Homicide: Life on the Street was one of the pre-“prestige TV” era’s finest shows, and set in New York’s fictional Oswald State Penitentiary, the series utilized its “anything goes” cable setting to push the boundaries of sex, violence, subject matter and sheer scope beyond anything that had come before. Sex and the City would follow in 1998, and the almighty Sopranos arrived in 1999, but Oz is where it all began.

If you imagine a world where The Sopranos never happened and Ozbecame not just the prototype for ambitious cable dramas but also the template itself, the TV landscape would look different indeed. While not a stupid show by any means, Oz is far less cerebral in its pacing and approach than the shows for which it served as proof of concept.

Its six-season plot involves dozens of characters in multiple warring factions whose conflicts rocket along at a breakneck pace. It tackles the big issues with the bluntness of an after-school special rather than the therapist’s-couch thoughtfulness of The Sopranos or Mad Men — or, for that matter, the socio-political agitprop of The Wire (created by David Simon, whose reportage Fontana adapted into Homicide) or Orange Is the New Black (Jenji Kohan’s even more popular and acclaimed prison drama), the major series with which Oz arguably has the most in common. Twenty years later, Oz is a glimpse at a TV world that might have been.

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary (!!!), I wrote about Oz and its very different brand of pre-prestige TV for Mic. The result is of a piece with the essay I wrote for Thrillist using The Godfather to lampoon complaints about showrunners saying “it’s a 73-hour movie” and suchlike. There’s no one right way to do TV narrative, any more than there’s one right way to do film narrative, and I’m dismayed when people act as if there obviously is.

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