I binge-watched Oz this semester because I did my presentation on the Netflix prison drama, Orange Is The New Black, and I wanted to watch something of the same genre to compare it to. I ended up loving Oz and procrastinated a lot of assignments because of it.

Oz (1997-2003) is an american prison drama television program. It was the first one-hour original drama made for the premium cable network HBO. As many people know, HBO is synonymous with the idea of ‘quality television’, and the network is branded as such. For this blogpost I will be discussing Oz and the concept of quality television.

Quality television can be defined by many different things (style, content, genre), but it is important to note off the bat that there will always be an element of taste involved in the evaluation of a program’s qualitative values. Everyone has their own distinction of what is ‘high’ vs ‘low’ culture, but there are some shows that the majority agree upon as being ‘quality television’ and are placed in the canon as such. I would argue that Oz is one of these shows, especially in the prison genre, and a great case study to better understand the concept of quality television.

There are some attributes, mentioned in the lecture, that roughly define what it considered to be quality television. A ‘quality’ television program is often attributed to a writer-producer who has authorship over the program. Oz is created by Tom Fontana, who wrote or co-wrote all of the programs 56 episodes. Having one person with great influence over the whole show is likely to have an effect, and I think it provides a sense of consistency across the episodes and season, as there is someone writing with the past and the future of the show in mind. This idea of authorship is linked to the concept of the auteur.


Another quality of quality television is the representation of taboo/difficult or adult subjects. Oz is a very very violent program, as it is set in a maximum security men’s prison. Someone is always getting shanked or starting a fight or getting killed. There is a lot of violent death. There is also a lot of sex, rape and profanity. Oz was able to represent these things because it was on HBO. HBO is able to show explicit content because they are a subscription based network that does not need to censor content to appease advertisers. Representing adult subjects also brings a niche audience that seek this content.


Quality television can also be judged on its narrative. Often there is a slow plot development and an emphasis on building immersive storyworlds. Oz is very immersive because you get to know the prisoners, the staff and the prison politics of Oswald, and the experimental unit where most of Oz is set, Emerald City. It is especially immersive because it is centred on the characters and their relationships with one another (which is a soap opera technique, interestingly enough). Oz sports a talented ensemble cast of characters who live in the prison. These characters drive the narrative through their individual plots that tangle and intertwine with each other. Interestingly, Oz has a narrator, who is the character Hill. Hill lives in the prison, but narrates the action with metaphorical asides and moral messages, often from inside a glass box. Hill is the reason why I started watching Oz, because a friend told me about his character and his role as narrator, and I wanted to see a television program that used this technique. Funnily enough, the choice to have Hill as the narrator is not explained until the last season (trying not to include spoilers).

Because of this focus on character, Oz uses techniques from both the serial and series format of programming. Like a series, the focus is on key characters in a certain location that drive the plot in several directions, but like a serial, there is no breath of relief at the end of each episode. The plots bleed from one episode to the next, with constant complications that take many episodes (or a whole season) to be resolved. In this way, Oz sports a complex narrative that traverses the boundaries between serial and series programming. Although a complex narrative does not constitute ‘quality television’, it is definitely an element that should be considered when evaluating a program and where it sits in relation to other programs.


My name is Mimo. I like to watch TV and films with my neighbour's cat.

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