Before shows like “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones” became synonymous with the HBO brand, the pay cabler kicked off a golden age of modern television with “Oz,” its first-ever hour-long drama series. The show took viewers inside the walls of the fictional Oswald State Penitentiary, where factions of prisoners faced off against one another and built their own society within the confines of a dehumanizing carceral system.

Debuting in the midst of an era of “tough on crime” politics and the rise of the prison-industrial complex, “Oz” was enlightening for viewers who had never considered what prison life might be like. It was also surreal; Oz was an experimental prison unit, and Fontana and other writers for the show used that distinction to churn out bizarre plots involving things like aging pills that turned lifers into old men, a toxic fumes leak, and more. A writers’ playground, “Oz” had more in common with avant-garde stage plays than television, and often featured allegorical situations, exaggerated moments, and Shakespearean techniques and references.

The fact that “Oz” ran for six seasons and managed to be as weird as it did feels like a miracle, and it’s thrilling to see it have a surprise afterlife two decades after its finale. Though the show received acclaim, it was also controversial for its graphic and copious depictions of violence, particularly male rape. Elements of the series no doubt require some updating today (despite empathizing with its characters, the show imagined nearly every prisoner as a bloodthirsty killer, for example). But if “Zo” pulls off the same sort of bleak magic tricks Fontana often delivered in the show’s original run, it’ll be worth tuning into. The short is set to debut on YouTube on May 1, 2024.



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