ATX TV: A Retrospective on ‘Oz,’ The Show That Died So Peak TV Could Live

“We have everything you’ll need — except time and money.”

The quote comes from Oz castmember Terry Kinney, describing his first experience in the director’s chair on the prison drama. Debuting in July of 1997, it was the first show in what would become HBO’s signature: the hour-long original drama. Set inside the walls of the Oswald State Correctional Facility, Oz remains remains a pioneering feat of television, and an under-appreciated gem that’s DNA can still be felt throughout the medium on a whole almost a quarter-century later.

It featured characters who’d, at best, been stereotyped in popular entertainment, or at worst ignored outright. Like The Sopranos, it was blunt, graphic, and exceedingly violent. Like Game of Thrones, any character was in danger at any given time, regardless if they were set up as the protagonist. Like The Wire, it drew you into a world scarcely portrayed, and done so with stark, brutal realism, and populated by a sea of complex characters. Sure, they were just as brutal and violent as the system that helped mold them, but there was depth and humanity, even if it seemed to only span “a great range of ugliness in them,” as Kinney put it.

As a pioneer in HBO’s foray into what would become prestige programming, which would later pave the way for Peak TV, suddenly the old rules didn’t apply, and creator/showrunner Tom Fontana indulged that freedom.

“HBO trusted me, as the writer and producer, to make the show I wanted, as opposed to the show they thought they wanted,” Fontana said at a pre-recorded panel as part of ATX TV Fest on Monday. “I thought that gave permission to David Chase permission to do Sopranos, [and] Alan Ball to do Six Feet Under. We took a chance, and it has allowed other people to make programming and TV shows that take a chance.”

As Fontana recalled, he was asked by the network what he’d like to do in a show that he couldn’t do in the confines of network or cable TV in the dream-filled halcyon days of the late 1990s. Fontana’s answer, immediately, was to “kill the lead character,” and in the pilot episode, he did exactly that. Dino Ortolani, portrayed by John Seda, had all the makings of a charismatic lead. A made man in the mafia serving life without the possibility of parole, it seemed like viewers would be watching the violent drama in Oz unfold from his perspective, until he was burned alive before the episode drew to a close.

The jovial, liberally profane conversation, which also included cast members Lee Tergesen, Dean Winters, Harold Perrinau, and Kirk Acevedo, did drift toward topics discussed at a similar panel held at ATX TV in 2016. That year, Fontana and The Wire creator David Simon (who also worked together on the NBC procedural Homicide) reminisced about the early days of HBO’s original dramas. While Oz was the first endeavor, it was the debut of The Sopranos that ultimately changed the face of TV, though in unexpected ways.

While Chase’s mobster-in-therapy drama also took bold narrative risks, it became a cultural powerhouse in a way Oz never did. As a result, HBO’s original intention of telling stories that’d never been told became less of a priority, and finding the next big hit became a greater one. So, The Sopranos success “bred as much fear as failure did,” Fontana explained at the time. Still, the network has remained committed to some original storytelling, mostly in smaller-scale productions or miniseries, which end up being subsidized by its flagship show du jour. Or, as Simon put it back then, “Game of Thrones is subsidizing all of us.”

Fontana, of course, remained characteristically humble about the impact Oz had on television over the past quarter-century, his collaborators and cast begged to differ. Particularly Winters, who played Ryan O’Reily throughout the show’s six-season run.

“These days, when you watch the landscape of television and movies, a lot of people are kinda patting themselves on the shoulder, saying ‘we’re so diverse, we’re so diverse,’ but there wasn’t a show before Oz that had a lead Muslim character. That had a lead gay character. That had a lead handicapped character. Tom broke down more barriers than anyone’s ever known. I think I’m speaking for the rest of us, we were all so proud to be a part of this.”

“When we started on this journey, we had no idea what was going on,” Winters continued. “Now, 24 years later, you see all these people talking about diversity and whatnot… I think everyone in Hollywood needs to take a pause for one second and just pay attention to Tom Fontana, who literally opened the floodgates. Whatever show you’re watching now, Tom Fontana is responsible.”

Fontana, being humble once again, quipped back with “I don’t think I want to be responsible for every show out there.”

Oz is available to stream anytime on HBO Max

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