It was the summer of 1997, and at the top of the Nielsen ratings, the just-completed television season had featured such shows as the Brooke Shields sitcom Suddenly Susan, the Tea Leoni sitcom The Naked Truth, and Friends lead-out The Single Guy. On the drama side, the CBS ecclesiastical series Touched by an Angel was joined by shows that were slightly edgier, whether that was because of their grittier content (NYPD Blue), high production values (ER), or expansive genres (The X-Files). It seemed like that latter batch was pointing the way for the future of high-quality viewing.
But really, the future of television, for at least the next decade and a half, was on cable. A show was about to debut would set the table for what we've come to know as the age of prestige TV, and it would all happen within the crass, grimy, violent confines of a maximum security prison.
Tom Fontana was already a two-time Emmy winning writer from St. Elsewhere and creator of the cop drama Homicide: Life on the Street when he and his Homicide collaborator Barry Levinson reunited to make Oz. As he told the New York Daily News in February of 1998, "I love exploring ordinary people in extraordinary situations [...] Regular, common people challenged in a way that I never am. Under those circumstances, you see whether they have any nobility or not. And since they don't have any super powers, they have to deal with something extraordinary in a way that any one of us would."
Oz was set at the fictional Oswald Correctional Facility in upstate New York, with the title an intentional misdirection from the hardcore, violent, profane setting for the show. In keeping with that theme, the bulk of the episodes were set within the "Emerald City," an experimental block of the prison headed by Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), whose idea for a more holistic, rehabilitative, redemptive approach to prison life was constantly at odds with both the prisoners themselves and the system that was determined to dehumanize them.
The deep and ever-evolving cast included Ernie Hudson as prison warden Leo Glynn, a fair but ultimately pragmatic man who would indulge McManus's ideas to a point. The staff included future Dexter star Lauren Velez as prison doctor Gloria Nathan, B.D. Wong as chaplain Ray Mukada, and Rita Moreno as nun Sister Peter Marie.
As for the inmates, the cast of Oz would become a Who's Who of the next fitteen years of TV and movies. Future Oscar winner J.K. Simmons played remorseless white supremacist Vern Schillinger. A pre-SVU Christopher Meloni played convicted murderer Chris Keller. Future Lost stars Harold Perrinau and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje played wheelchair-bound narrator Augustus Hill and tiny-hatted Simon Adebisi, respectively. Luis Guzman played criminal kingpin "El Cid." Future The Wire and The Walking Dead star Seth Gilliam played troubled cop Clayton Hughes. Bobby Cannavale appeared as a supporting character in the final season, while Edie Falco played guard Diane Whittlesey for the first three seasons before departing for The Sopranos.
Oz filmed in New York City from a soundstage in the West Side's Chelsea Market, which meant it was able to cast a whole host of guest-star roles with Broadway luminaries like Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, and Joel Grey.
The storylines were what really set Oz apart, though, and that is where its status as the forebearer of the age of prestige TV becomes clear. This is really the starting line of an era where shows became more violent and more centered on antiheroes or outright villains. Before Tony Soprano there was Ryan O'Reilly (Dean Winters). Before Walter White there was Vern Schillinger. For a show that was, at its heart, a lurid and soapy look at criminals and brutes, Oz peppered its storylines with heavy themes of race, religion, and politics.
Meanwhile, pay cable opened the door for language and nudity. On Oz violence was a given — between inmanes, from the guards, and in flashbacks to the prisoners' crimes. The sex was often just as transgressive, particularly in the way the show depicted homosexuality, which was certainly not without its problematic elements — prison rape was an oft-used storyline device — but which also, through the characters of Keller and Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) gave prestige TV a landmark gay love story that was as twisted and sexy and doomed as you would expect from a show set in a prison.
Within just a few years of its premiere, Oz would be usurped by The Sopranos in pretty much every way. As the crown jewel in HBO's programming lineup, David Chase's show was lauded for breaking barriers in terms of subject matter, sex, and violence, and for centering its show around a complicated antihero like Tony Soprano. The Emmys came running, and the prestige TV era was truly underway.
In many ways, The Sopranos deserves its spot on the pedestal as the standard bearer for prestige TV, and certainly the quality of writing, directing, and acting set it as a class above nearly everything else on TV. But Oz broke many of those barriers first and set up HBO as a destination for hard-hitting, envelope-pushing original TV drama at a time when they were almost entirely known for movies. The show never got the respect that subsequent generations of HBO series did, but it's earned its place in history.
All six seasons of Oz are available for streaming on HBO Max.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.