How Oz Set the Standard for TV Drama

Jaw-dropping plot twists and flawed characters you can’t stop watching? Oz was there first. To celebrate the prison drama’s 20th anniversary, let’s take a look at some of the ways the series shocked, provoked and enthralled.

Morally Ambiguous Characters

Antiheroes are the stuff Peak TV is made of, but that wasn’t the case when Oz premiered in 1997. From feeding glass to foes and setting enemies aflame, Oz characters pull no punches. Yet even the worst offenders — neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) and master manipulator Ryan O’Reily (Dean Winters) — reveal surprising and poignant depths by the show’s end.

Depicting Prison Life, Period

Debuting in an era of procedural cop dramas — and tough-on-crime legislation— Oz portrayed the other side of the criminal justice equation. Creator Tom Fontana spent two years researching, deliberately visiting prisons without taking notes. “I was just going to let the environment speak to me and let whatever I remembered be what I was supposed to remember,” he recalled in a 2009 interview with the TV Academy. “The point was to get a sense of the environment, the smell and the sound of the place, and the relationships.” Over six seasons, the show explored the human costs of incarceration in a way that was never conventional or tidy.

Same-Sex Relationships

The intense love affair between drunk driver Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) and sociopathic killer Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni) is the stuff of legend. Introduced in the show’s second season, it was brazenly explicit for the time — and provocatively complex. It began with passionate declarations of love, followed by stolen kisses... and multiple fractures (this is Oz, after all). In no small part for the unapologetic romance, the show was nominated for a GLAAD award in 2000.

Muslims on TV

Black nationalist Kareem Saïd (Eamonn Walker) was the first recurring Muslim character on an American TV show. In creating the character, Fontana wanted to stay true to the realities of prison life — as well as depict Muslims as people of faith. “To get the audience comfortable with the Black Muslim character… I actually sat and read the Koran and took out whatever pieces of wisdom in it that are the same as the ones that are in the Bible,” creator Tom Fontana said in 2015. Wielding religious influence to bend prison authorities to his will, Saïd remains one of the show’s most defiant and compelling figures.

Killing Off — Spoiler Alert! — Characters

A decade before Game of Thrones began exterminating its most beloved heroes, Oz set the tone by killing off its lead... in the very first episode. He wouldn’t be the last one. The message was the clear: Anything can happen on Oz.