Think back to 1997. Bill Clinton was president, Black people populated prime-time TV shows like Martin and Living Single, and HBO was finding its footing. Before The Sopranos and Sex and the City ushered in the “golden age of television,” the premium cable network needed something good that would snag a massive audience and separate it from everything else on television. Oz was the show that quietly but surely made HBO elite.
In the 20 years since, prestige dramas from The Wire to Orange is the New Black, are fruit from Oz’s tree. In retrospect, Oz is one of TV’s greatest shows because it shifted the medium entirely. Here’s how:
1. It introduced mass incarceration into cable television.
Prior to Oz, there were a number of series, including Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Streets, that zeroed in on the tenuous relationship between criminals and police officers. But the series took viewers beyond the investigation, the arrest, and the trial to expose what becomes of those who are convicted. HBO introduced its first hourlong drama with little fanfare on July 12, 1997. The series chronicled the lives of inmates, correctional officers, and politicians at and around Emerald City, an experimental low-security unit in the fictional Oswald State Penitentiary in New York.
HBO had previously run documentaries about prison life, including 1994’s Lock-Up: The Prisoners of Rikers Island, which made its executives more willing to dedicate a show to the ins and outs of mass incarcerations. Still, Oz was a gamble: There had never been a series that laid bare the lives of incarcerated men. From their same-sex romantic relationships to their complicated backgrounds to the violence inflicted on them and the harm they’ve caused to others, the Emmy-nominated series really humanized prisoners who are purposefully hidden from public view.
And Oz didn’t limit its scope to prisoners: It also explored the inner workings of the prison-industrial complex, including the politicians, correctional officers, and activists who work to both uphold and disrupt the system. These days, multiple shows, such as Orange is the New Black and Prison Break, turn a similar lens on mass incarceration. There’s also public acknowledgment and conversation about how the federal “war on drugs” disproportionately targeted people of color.
2. Oz revolutionized hour-long dramas.
Oz came before The Sopranos, The Corner, The Wire, and the other iconic television series that peppered the golden age. It represented HBO’s first foray into the hourlong drama format that accrued the network critical acclaim, a slew of awards, and acknowledgement as the pioneers of premium cable dramas. When Oz debuted in July 1997, other networks weren’t invested in hour-long dramas. Now, these compelling series, including The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Scandal exist in abundance. They’re here because Oz existed first.
3. It refused to shy away from the brutality of prison life, including rape.
When Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) first arrives in Emerald City, he’s raped by Vernon Schillinger (J. K. Simmons), the leader of Oz’s white supremacist group. Schillinger then spends the entire first season abusing and harassing Beecher: repeatedly raping him, forcing him to dress in women’s clothes, and making him rip up photos of his family. It’s unflinchingly humiliating and difficult to watch, but also mirrors the dynamic that’s often present in prisons. The show returned to prisoner rape over and over again. As of 2015, only 35 percent of prison rapes and assaults are reported, though the Department of Justice requires jails and prisons to report these incidents.
Oz didn’t shy away from these dehumanizing aspects of prison. Instead, they made it central to the plotlines.
4. Male nudity was the norm.
Name a show that displayed as many penises as Oz did. Television loves showing women’s bodies. Our vaginas, breasts, and asses are regularly displayed on primetime television, but penises, are apparently, too sacred for showing. In Oz, male frontal nudity was the norm, whether it’s Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) showing off his goods while standing in his cell or Schillinger pulling out his penis to intimidate Beecher.
Nudity, however, didn’t just exist to objectify men’s bodies. Instead, Oz really focused on the vulnerability of men, especially when they’re in relationships with each other. In later seasons, Beecher develops a relationship with his cellmate Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni). They are never shown having sex, but there are subtle moments when their bodies convey their love for each other, such as Keller gently rubbing Beecher’s arm or the couple cuddling on their small twin size bed. It isn’t all brutal. Love exists in prison too.
Men’s bodies became integral to the show, as they should be on all dramas.
5. Antiheroes exist because Oz did.
Tony Soprano wasn’t TV’s first antihero: Oz’s Ryan O’Reilly (Dean Winters) was. The Irish-American mobster did everything wrong: He sells drugs to prisoners, manipulates others to accrue power, sells out his disabled brother, and still somehow, remained a character worth rooting for.
The Sopranos generally gets all the credit for ushering in cable’s age of the antihero, but Oz created the archetype. We couldn’t have Walter White without Ryan O’Reilly—period.