The setting is Emerald City, a special cell block in Oswald State Penitentiary set up by Tim McManus as sort of an experiment. He wants a better life for the prisoners, he wants to help them so that when they're released, they can become functioning members of society.
The whole "purpose" of Em City really doesn't come into play much (or at least it hasn't yet). What drives the narrative of Oz is its vibrant cast of characters. Dozens of criminals and several lawmen share the spotlight. And the show never feels the need to pander to its main cast. You can get an episode where the person who is arguably the main character gets about five minutes of screentime, and it's at the very end. And the supporting cast is never forgotten. Characters are always in the background playing checkers, or they have a short little scene to highlight the theme of the episode. They always feel just as real as the main characters. Sometimes they stay in the background, and sometimes they get their own plotline.
Lost could learn a thing or two from Oz, because what Oz does with its cast is exactly what Lost should have been doing all this time. Both shows deal with characters in a confined environment, and granted, it's much easier to introduce new characters into the prison, Lost has never made good on its promise to bring the other survivors into the spotlight. It pays them lip service every now and then, but it's nothing compared to what Oz does. The only survivor not in the credits who has any semblance of character is Rose, and she's disappeared. The show slavishly focuses on its main cast, which gives the impression that they're the only damn people on the island, and nothing any of the other survivors do is important. It gives the impression the other survivors just sit around on their fucking asses all day. It creates an unfairly insular environment on the island. Not so with Em City, which feels so much more alive, so much more populated and real.
The other thing about these characters is they can die any fucking minute. I'm not used to this shit, man. The very first episode, I started becoming attached to someone I thought was going to be a main character, and then he died. I became attached to another character, and then he died. Another. He died. This is prison, man. People are always killing people, and the death sentence is just a signature away. Hell, on this show, knowing a character's not going to die feels as much like a spoiler as knowing they will. And if Lost would develop its red shirts a bit more, it could easily create that sense of uncertainty by feeding them to the Iron Giant once in a while.
Some of you may know that identity is a pet theme of mine. I love watching characters find out who they are and who they're not. I love it when they reclaim themselves (this is one reason that "Anne," while apparently not loved by many, is a favorite of mine). Oz has plenty of characters with identity issues, because what else do you have to do in prison besides engage in introspection? And besides, it's only under the most extreme circumstances that you find out who you really are. Or so they say.
But I've come to realize that another pet theme of mine is power struggles. In Em City, there are all these factions. The Italians, the Muslims, the Latinos, the blacks. And they all have to deal with each other to operate the drug trade. And if one man dies, there has to be retaliation. If you want power, you have to make unstable alliances. It's this strange microcosm of society, not a representative sample by any means, but one that's fascinating to watch in action. Nothing is ever static in Em City. And hell, beyond that, you've got the power struggles on the side of the law, as McManus clashes with the warden, and they both clash with the jackass governor. This is one thing Lost has done fairly well, I think, though it could definitely be more well defined.
The other thing about these factions is they're racist as fucking hell. I was pretty impressed with how much racism Veronica Mars got away with, but it's nothing compared to what occurs on Oz. Racial slurs are an integral part of the characters' lexicons. I haven't yet read the entire original pilot script for VM, but I know it was far more profane, the kind of thing that could have played on HBO. Can you imagine VM on HBO? Damn.
Which brings me to my other major point about Oz, which is that its plotting structure is like nothing I've ever seen. The season is eight episodes long, sure. And each episode defines itself as an episode by focusing on a particular theme or topic made blatant by the framing device of Hill's narration. But plotlines don't begin in one episode and resolve by the end. Plotlines will begin at the end of one episode, span the next, and then end in the middle of another. At which point another plotline will begin, one that doesn't kick into gear for a couple episodes, at which point it's used to jumpstart another one. I'm not even thinking of particular instances here. The point is the show doesn't adhere to your typical episodic format. It just tells stories.
And holy shit, guys. We crow about the continuity on VM, but holy fucking shit, guys. It ain't got nothing on Oz. This goes right back to the attention the show pays to its characters. It very deliberately knows what each character has done, and how they're related to any number of other characters. Nothing is forgotten. The way this show is plotted is just genius. There is always something happening, and it is always happening for a purpose. Again: just think of VM on HBO, where it wouldn't be constrained by the MOTW format, where Rob could just go wild with his stories and not have to worry about how to cut them into individual episodes.
Are all the HBO shows this good? I can understand why people shun network television and make a big deal about how great the shows on HBO are. I just...never knew what I was missing. They keep saying it's like a novel, and it works like that, it's as if the entire season is one big story that's tied together by the stories it takes to get from the beginning to the end.
Now, I don't love Oz with the squeetastic fervor with which I love VM. I can't. Melanie, my friend who lent me the DVDs, understands. It's not something I, personally, could love. It's kind of a hard show to love, what with all the violence and assrape. But it's a fucking great show, and I need the S2 DVDs, like, now.