After 20 years, ‘Oz’ has lost most of its magic

The other day I started watching the HBO series Oz. Going in, my expectations were that it was a serious drama from the late 1990s with a brutal depiction of prison life including lots of sexual assault and violence but altogether of high quality.

That’s not unwarranted, but through four seasons it’s mainly been interesting because it’s so completely a product of its era that it feels like it was produced in another country.

It’s not surprising that a generation’s distance might do that, but then The Wire comes along only five years later, shares many of the same actors, and somehow comes across more like a period piece than something made a long time ago. You know that it’s set in Baltimore, you know it’s the early 21st Century as government-issue typewriters are giving way to email, cell phones have become ubiquitous while pagers are rare, and you know it’s closely following the September 11 attacks as federal law enforcement redirects its energies from drug-trafficking to counter-terrorism. There’s a high level of specificity about time and place, but it could have produced any time since then because the storyline is complex, dialogue is realistic, and the characters don’t seem to have pre-planned arcs other than the natural progression of events and the consequent effect on characters. After the first episode, there’s no flashbacks, and overall, there’s nothing avant garde for the time in terms of camera work, narrative structure, or hamfisted characters with demographic qualities the writers feel like they ought to represent but don’t really bother to understand.

Look, it’s easy and popular now to call The Wire the greatest television show ever made, but that’s not undeserved. At the time it aired, it wasn’t important or influential.

If The Wire is the pinnacle of the Golden Age of Television, the show that deservedly gets the most credit for being its definitive starting point is still The Sopranos. I’ve only watched the first season in full then lost interest during the second, and I wasn’t impressed with it because it doesn’t compare favorably with what came after.

I much more care for Vic Mackey and The Shield as a fully human, love-hate villain protagonist, and it ‘stuck the landing’ so perfectly it’s a shame that it never streamed in full on Netflix and therefore never became a cultural touchstone. (It really is that good, and you really ought to watch it.)

Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, and Justified all group together under the ‘morally ambiguous to amoral anti-hero protagonist’ subgenre that took over critically acclaimed, popular television in the intervening years, but The Sopranos was so influential that its virtues are invisible until compared with what was considered serious drama previously.

And that includes Oz. It’s obvious while watching now that it’s a show that predates The Sopranos. It’s ambitious, almost all of the characters commit acts morally reprehensible acts, and it’s an ensemble cast just as much as The Wire. It’s free of the constraints of network television, and it has some good storylines and great acting, but it suffers from any comparison with serious dramas of the past decade and a half.

The most striking difference is the monologues performed by a narrator who is also a character in the story and involve elaborate, dream-like stages and costumes along with visual effects and camera work that would be a better fit for an art major’s senior project. They’re showy, completely absent of subtlety, and sacrifice all subtext for text to ensure that the audience gets it.

That’s the deeper difference between Oz and those later shows. There’s a dividing line, starting with The Sopranos, where creators started having elevated expectations of their audience or else trusted that the show could be re-watched repeatedly on DVD and later streaming services to catch all references without direct commentary. With Oz, it’s strange how many flashbacks there are for events previously depicted in the series because anything the show wants you to know in an episode it feels it has to make sure you know from what’s on screen or explained in a line of dialogue within that very same episode.

There’s a similar lack of trust in the season finales: each one ends in a cliffhanger rather than closure. The Golden Age treats seasons like novels, self-contained and complete but leaving room for a sequel if people feel the quality of the existing product creates a desire for a continuation. Creators now can trust their audience to ask, ‘And then what happened?’ rather than trying to hold them hostage for resolution.

I ran into the same problem when I tried to re-watch the SciFi series Farscape. Upon rewatching it just wasn’t…good. Or maybe it’s more that watching several hour-long episodes from a 22-episode season that only has eight to 12 hours’ worth of plot and character development isn’t enjoyable unless you have it on as background noise you occasionally look up at and pay attention to when the quality rises to a certain level.

My first thought was that what’s happened is we’ve transitioned to a medium fundamentally different despite cosmetically retaining the form of broadcast television. It’s the same way that a lot of Charles Dickens is just boring as hell when you try to read him straight through, but he wrote for an audience that originally consumed his works as monthly, serial installments. Television from the 1990s and most of cable in early 2000s carried with it the expectation you’d watch it once a week, if that, so very little information could be so crucial you’d be lost if you didn’t remember it in full from four weeks ago or may have been out to dinner that episode.

But the Marvel Netflix shows suffer from this same problem: they’re usually an hour long and 13 episodes to a season, and they could stand to be six to eight episodes and 45 minutes or so. Other than Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, Daredevil was downright unwatchable to binge in its first season. Yet if it were on ABC each week, sure, it would be passable to have on while doing other things on a laptop or reading a book or grading papers.

It’s not unreasonable that 50 years from now, tastes will have changed to the point that shows like The Wire are not well-regarded or popular, but I feel confident that it’s the sort of timeless greatness that will hold up to repeat viewings and future generations in a way few things from any generation do. On the other hand, shows like Farscape and Jessica Jones and probably Oz as well will have to undergo some sort of redaction process similar to ‘best of’ albums in order to maintain any sort of cultural cache.

The Sopranos expected better of audiences, and audiences were capable of meeting those expectations, assisted by technology and greater leisure time. Despite cursing, gore, ‘shocking’ storylines, and regular sexual violence, a lot of Oz is simply boring, and the only way people of future generations will bother to watch it is if there’s extremely clever editing to excise all of the scenes and storylines that are a waste of time to retain only what’s relevant and still interesting or impactful.

The past if a foreign country, but every so often, a creative work is so completely of a time and place that people are able to identify with the universality of it, and in that way it can live forever.

Oz is of its time, but not set anywhere in particular, and other than references to the new millennium, not set in any time in particular, and it has aged in the normal, putrefying way rather than being preserved as in honey.

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