Farewell to Oz

We managed to finish two long works recently – first Don Quixote (I’m convinced that most people didn’t read past page 150, since almost every single reference you read or hear is to what happens in the first fifth of the novel), and then Oz, the HBO prison (melo)drama.

The series is a prototype for so many later HBO gems, The Sopranos and The Wire just two of them. It pioneered the network’s trademark adult style, with lashings of violence and sex. Its characters were often nuanced, always ambiguous, its cast of characters portrayed by actors who give it their all. I don’t regret watching the whole series, and there were very strong moments throughout.

All of which is building up to faint praise, to be quite honest. The series’ grasp exceeded its reach – which in itself isn’t that much of a problem, but what really rankles is how Oz seems to think itself more astute, more perceptive on the evils of the American penal system than it really is. It is too infatuated with its own running commentary and social critique, and it displays the tendency towards hysteria in its storylines and presentation that Spike Lee is prone to. It’s easy enough to forgive this in Lee’s films of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but to find the same tricks used over and over in a series in the late ’90s and early 21st century… well, it makes the series look hokey.

More than that, though, Oz could have been much stronger and held up much better to its successors if it had been two or three seasons rather than the full six seasons it lasted. Its social critique started off as hit-and-miss, often facile rather than perceptive, and this only increased as the series went on. By the time we got to the last couple of seasons, many storylines were thin and fraying at the edges; what kept us watching wasn’t the commentary on prison and how it often achieves an effect that is the opposite of what is intended, but the soap opera. Would Beecher find happiness in his relationship with charming sociopath Keller? Would McManus finally manage to have an adult relationship and not turn into a dick towards a woman he clearly likes? Would Schillinger finally accept that no one knows how to pronounce his name correctly? And as with daytime soaps, the episodic plots were sordid, tacky, maudlin: Rebadow takes up playing the lottery because his son is dying of leucaemia! Alvarez’ wife is divorcing him and fucking his brother! Did I care? Yes – but in a distanced, not particularly involved way.

The final season was a mess of barely begun, half finished ideas and storylines. Dead characters from past seasons were brought back to add their voice to Augustus Hill’s – and then that idea was dropped. New characters were introduced for no apparent reason, almost as if the producers were pretending that Oz wasn’t coming to an end. There were powerful moments – Cyril’s almost-execution – but others were as silly as the series’ worst excesses. (Kirk and Hoyt believing they’re possessed by the devil – WTF?!) The prison production of Macbeth (and the running gag of replacing the actors because they keep dying off) was forgotten for most of the season, even if it was used effectively to stage one character’s death.

All things considered, though, this is one Oz I’m unlikely to revisit. I’ve seen Six Feet Under three times (and am gearing up for a fourth). Same with The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood – even Carnivale and Rome. I’m unlikely to go back to Oz Penitentiary any time soon, though. I guess what we had here was a failure to communicate, eh?

There’s no place like Oz

In the game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – The TV Edition, Oz must hold a special place: it seems like every other character is played by an actor who later turned up in The Wire, Dexter or (apparently) Law & Order: SVU. It’s also the first of the heavily serialised HBO programming, a trailblazer for later series such as The Sopranos, Deadwood and the aforementioned Bawlmore epic, The Wire.

Arguably, it’s also the weakest of all of these series, the one that holds up least well. No doubt about it – the people involved in this series are smart and talented, and there are wonderful moments throughout… but the longer the more, the individual moments of great writing or brilliant acting are hampered by the series’ tone. It tries too hard to be brave, hard-hitting, ironic, poignant, human, cynical, all mixed into one, and the result is that Oz can feel, clumsy hysterical and inauthentic. I don’t mean ‘unrealistic’ – I have no problem with a stylised approach. What the series does at times is manipulate the plot, characters and presentation To Make A Point. These moments come across as a mix between a heavy-handed editorial on social issues and a stand-up comedy routine by someone who’s less funny than he thinks he is.

It’s a shame, because the material is there, the actors are there, the themes are there. If the show runners had trusted Oz more to achieve what it sets out to do without trying so goddamn hard, the series would be up there with the best of HBO, I believe. Even as it is, there are moments that are fantastic TV – but then the next scene is likely to be as blaring and obvious as the soundtrack. Oh, the soundtrack. It’s as bad as the music in a Mike Leigh film, but more embarrassing.

We’ve got 2 1/2 seasons to go, and I’m by no means at a point where I resent the series. It’s still watchable and worth it for the moments when it all comes alive, when what the series could be isn’t weighed down by what its makers think it ought to be, and what it ought to express, turned up to 11.

But I’m sure that by the last episode, one question will remain, a question that puts all the mysteries of Lost to shame… Just how does Adebisi keep that ridiculous cap of his on his head?