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?

Vale of Tears, HBO style

My tastes probably tend towards the dark and tragic somewhat. For a while David Fincher’s Seven was my feelgood film (and I’m only exaggerating slightly). I’m not particularly into comedies, mainly because I don’t tend to find them funny – but I think that Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are both rich in humour, though of the blackest sort. I tend to label things as “bittersweet” that my Significant Other would call “depressing as hell”.

Imagine my surprise when we finished watching season 2 of Oz… and my reaction was pretty much this: Whoa. This series may be too negative, too pessimistic, too “everything is going to shit” for me. By comparison, the last two seasons of Six Feet Under were light tragicomedy, The Sopranos is Analyse This! and Deadwood is Paint My Wagon. In the season 2 finale, Oz gives us a pedophile ex-priest getting crucified by Arians, a Latino guard’s eyes getting stabbed (with disturbing visuals of the damage) and one inmate’s arms and legs being broken. (I can still hear the snapping sounds…) When an old Nigerian gets stabbed to death, it almost feels like a relief: Thank god, they could have put his arm down the garbage disposal and then fed him his own kidneys!

Oz is open to allegations of being gratuitous in its use of violence, at least in this episode – but then, I can think of scenes of Deadwood, Rome and indeed Six Feet Under (elevator bisection!) that are as visceral and gory. So what is it, if not the gruesome depiction of violence? Is it that the characters are by and large doing evil things? Hey, Al Swearengen could pull off as many as six evil things before breakfast, without breaking into a sweat. The Soprano mob was no bit more angelic than the inmates of Oswald Penitentiary. So, again: what is it that makes Oz less bearable?

I think it’s this: Oz is about a world where hope is mostly dead, and what hope is left is killed over and over again. All these other series, for the pain, suffering and evil acts they depict, they haven’t killed off hope. Goodness can exist and survive and sometimes even thrive. In Oz, the only way that goodness can avoid being trampled is by hiding away, making itself smaller. There are sparse moments of light, but they are so exceptional and all the characters seem to know it that you almost dismiss them as a mere distraction from the doom and gloom. And yes, there is humour, but most of the time it’s grim as hell. Even the world of The Wire is more hopeful. Consider that: The Wire is more hopeful than Oz.

Arguably, that’s the world the series depicts: its version of the American penal system is Hell, an institutional hell where goodness is weakness, and the weak get their arms and legs broken. But if a series is that relentlessly negative and nine out of ten times something good happening is just occasion for the characters to fall from a greater height, it becomes wearying. And it’s the first HBO series where I’m not exactly eager to get started on the next season as soon as possible.

Perhaps I need to recover with something lighter.

You cannot be series!

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.