It’s that time of year. No, not Christmas (which this is too late for anyway), not the end of one year and the beginning of another.
It’s time for a new series.
Within a short period we finished Carnivale and got to the end of the current (well, for Swiss standards) seasons of Fringe, True Blood and House. (The latter, while still blessed with a great main actor, should slowly be put out of its misery, mind you.) So, what were we to watch next? Mad Men? The Shield? I, Claudius?
What we went for instead: the grandpappy of the HBO series that I’ve gone on about at great and boring length before. Not the grandmother, Sex & the City, because the moment I start watching that series you may want to look out the window for four guys on horses. No, I’m talking about the testosterone-riddled Oz. Looking at the setting and cast, it very much looks like an audition for later series such as The Sopranos (hi, Edie!) or The Wire (seriously, does Bodie only come with a single change of clothes that he takes along to every series he does?). Like many of these other series, Oz takes something that is relatively high concept and sees what it can do with it. In this case, the concept is: let’s do a high-security prison series that isn’t about trying to escape and that doesn’t outstay its welcome three episodes into season 1.
Make no mistake: this is no Prison Break. This isn’t pulpy escapism with the occasional white supremacist of imprisoned mobster thrown in for light relief. It’s grandly operatic drama with shower rapes, murder and ethical dilemmas. It’s also strangely Spike Lee; perhaps it’s the racial tensions that feel a bit like a ’90s update of Do the Right Thing, but mainly it’s the directorial flourishes, camera and lighting work, and the stylised elements – especially the Greek chorus-type soliloquies provided by Harold Perrineau Jr.’s character (with Waaaaaaalt! barely a twinkle in his fresh-from-Romeo & Juliet eyes).
It’s also these soliloquies that are most responsible for me not taking to the series as immediately as I took to a lot of other HBO fare. Again, like Spike Lee, though at his worst, the speeches are often too on-the-nose and too smugly enamoured of their cleverness (which they aren’t – often they belabour the obvious) that they feel like a 21-year old film student’s “Wouldn’t it be artistic if…?” at 2am in the morning after lots of cheap red wine and Foucault.
Having said that, while we cringe at some of the series’ moments, we’re in it for the duration – not least because I’ve got the complete set. The material’s definitely interesting, and I’m happy to give Oz a chance to drop its self-conscious ‘tude and become more confident with what it’s doing and how it’s doing it. Who knows, it may even get to join the pantheon of those HBO greats by the end of the final season.
Well, if it doesn’t, at least it isn’t stuck on constant reruns of the same episode, with only the faces and the names of syndromes changing, or eager to do the tired, old “Will they, won’t they?” spiel. I bet I’m not the only one who wishes, in the case of certain other series, that it were lupus. The terminal kind.