In my constant attempt to write about things that are absolutely not games, here's a review of an old TV show that you can't get on Netflix and won't see on regular cable. It's one of the first original series that HBO rolled out, and they're incredibly protective of their stuff. Apparently, they feel that if you get to see a man's johnson during the show, they're not inclined to let you get it for a nine-buck-a-month Netflix membership.
Oz was a cool show about life in a prison. Well, maybe 'cool' is the wrong word. 'Depressing' might be a better descriptor. This prison was apparently run by shrub-brained bobble-heads, because they were constantly allowing the inmates to kill each other and get high as balls. It was the blueprint for what would become the typical HBO drama - huge cast, lots of different story threads, and an endless parade of needless nudity.
The story of Oz follows a handful of inmates, guards and administrators who deal with life in the day-to-day doldrums of a maximum security penitentiary. There are drug dealers and murderers, priests and prostitutes, and even a few nerds. They are not so much characters, however, as they are tools used to tell a story and evoke emotion.
It's pretty obvious, when you're watching Oz, that the writers were going for a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy. It becomes especially obvious when the inmates put on a production of Macbeth. The show has three goals - to tell a compelling tale, to get you invested in the characters, and to appeal to people who want to see blood and naked people.
I'll start with that last one. If you want to see an incredible number of stabbings interspersed with full frontal male nudity, Oz can sure deliver. I mean, there are lots and lots of moments when I wanted to cover my eyes. Sometimes at the violence, sometimes at the dick parade. I'm not squeamish about either, but sometimes it's just more than you need. Some of those deaths were incredibly gruesome, and I could live the rest of my life without ever again having to see the privates of the guy who does Mayhem in those insurance commercials. You'll be lucky if you don't develop a bit of a complex watching Oz - apparently, they only hired well-hung actors.
As far as the characters, they were very well-realized. From the poor sap who is doing time for a DUI-turned-manslaughter to the Irish gangster with a talent for survival, the characters in Oz are a varied and entertaining bunch of people to watch. The only problem is, you start to root for some of these guys, but being a tragedy, nobody gets a happy ending (except in prison terms - there's enough disgusting sex that you know a lot of these dudes had a 'happy ending').
In fact, this ties into the next point. I know the show is going for tragedy, and it accomplishes that in spades, but after watching six seasons of Oz, your psyche is going to need a break. I know bad things can happen to people, and I know prison isn't exactly a Caribbean resort spa, but it's amazing how horrible things get for these people. So many people are so badly hurt that it becomes difficult to care what happens. I mean, I want to hope Beecher can find peace and freedom, but come on! How much bad crap can happen to one guy?
All that said, Oz does a remarkable job of telling a story. In the course of six seasons, the show spins a yarn of greed and hope and morality and the flaws of the human condition. It's aggressively intelligent with a powerful undertow of subtext. It even ends with a visual metaphor that manages to put a final punctuation on the story without a heavy-handed attempt to wrap up all the loose ends.
However, while the story itself may have been well-executed, Oz obviously has its flaws. As one of HBO's flagship original series, there were too many mistakes in theme, timing, and character development. They were going for Shakespeare, but they missed the mark. Even Shakespeare knew that sometimes, the audience wants to see a good guy win, at least every now and then. In order to weave their tale of corruption and darkness, the writers sacrificed believability and they opted to deny any real relief from the relentless oppression.
I did enjoy Oz, and I'm glad I watched the whole series. I wish they had made a few minor changes, and having done a little homework, I know that it was not even remotely realistic. Prison is not a pleasant place to spend your afternoons, but I think even a Russian gulag is run better than this. But for all the depression and pain, there's an entertaining story, one that will make you think. And more importantly, it will make you redouble your efforts to avoid becoming a resident at your local correctional facility. Because DAMN, prison sucks. Even in real life.
The DVD disks for Oz are available from Netflix (if you have that service), it's just not on Instant Watch.
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