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‘Oz’ Changed the Way We Look at Crime, Punishment and Naked Men

The searing prison drama wouldn’t let us escape one of America’s greatest failures

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

For all their machinations, the inmates at Oswald State Correctional Facility, the fictional prison setting of Oz, really have just one goal: survive. HBO set the stakes in its first hour-long drama series as high as possible while grounding the story in the brutal realities of America’s carceral state, where life is cheap and dignity impossible. The world had never seen television like it — 1997 was the dawn of the cable prestige era — but perhaps more importantly, we’d never seen a sustained and unflinching study of how men destroy one another in confinement.

Our audience surrogate is Tobias Beecher, a middle-class white man made an example by the courts after killing a girl while driving drunk. He arrives in the super-max facility’s “Emerald City” wing, where a progressive unit manager hopes to rehabilitate convicts instead of merely punishing them — with little success, thanks to institutional rot and inhumane conditions. Beecher is quickly dominated by his cellmate, Aryan Brotherhood leader Vern Schillinger, played by the terrifying J.K. Simmons, who rapes him and turns him into a sex slave. 

Throughout its harrowing 56 episodes, Oz lays waste to the common belief that sexual assault behind bars is both karmically deserved and somehow funny; here it is always a violation made in the name of power. Having no control over their fate, the men seek to control other bodies. Curiously, these scenes served as a gay awakening for younger viewers, which tells you how rare any acknowledgement of same-sex intercourse was for popular media at the time.     

Elsewhere, rival gangs vie for influence through black markets for contraband like drugs and alcohol, extending the metaphor of authority: If you cannot escape hell, you seek to make its population dependent on you. Status is a way of concealing your physical vulnerability, as we see in the righteous pronouncements of Black Muslim leader Kareem Saïd or the Machiavellian dealings of Ryan O’Reily, who has to be indispensable to all sides to avoid being caught up in their clashes. Others must rely on their reputations for bloodshed, and willingness to spill more: Simon Adebisi, imprisoned for decapitating a police officer, seems to relish any angle of attack, and gay serial killer Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni, in the role that first made his well-toned ass a celebrity in its own right) keeps his violence unpredictable, a continually implied threat.

As almost no one gets through the show unscathed, let alone alive, Oz becomes a gripping meditation on our fragile flesh and minds. Characters are picked off in ghoulish fashion. Ground glass mixed into their food, stealthily infected with HIV, bricked up behind a wall — there is no end to the inventive means of execution. And torment begets torment, either in a cycle of vengeance, as the long arc of Beecher and Schillinger’s feud plays out and spills beyond the prison walls, or in solitary confinement, where Miguel Alvarez often finds himself after reluctantly blinding a corrections officer on orders from the Latino gang’s boss. 

Throughout, narration is given by Augustus Hill, paralyzed from the waist down after a cop threw him off a roof because he’d murdered a fellow officer. Speaking from his wheelchair, Hill is another reminder that whatever we have can be taken away in an instant. Oz often asks what happens when men with almost nothing are then deprived of whatever slim hope or solace was sustaining them. At the same time, no humiliation is too small to wound. Late in the series, Schillinger explodes with rage not over anything of consequence, but because no one pronounces his name correctly.

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For good reason, Oz is heralded as groundbreaking. But if it had debuted this year, almost two decades after it went off the air, it would have been just as shocking. Whatever critics hated — the pervading nihilism, the gratuitous nudity and violence, the exploitation of our deepest fears and revulsions — is precisely what establishes an effective critique of American justice, and convinces a viewer they can smell the sweat of men caged like animals. In a culture that wants to forget criminals the moment they’re locked up, Oz wouldn’t let us look away. And the quiet, even tender moments amid the mayhem argued that even the worst of us deserve better.