Season 1

Starring: Ernie Hudson, Rita Moreno, J.K. Simmons, Eamonn Walker and Harold Perrineau
Paramount Home Entertainment
RRP: 24.99
Certificate: 15
Available 05 February 2007

Emerald City is the new experimental unit of the Oswald State Penitentiary. It is an attempt to stop the endless recycling of inmates through the criminal justice system. Oz is a brutal place, full of the worst kinds of people. Fear and violence is ever the companion of those passing through. But for most Oz is the place where they will live and the place they will die...

Oz ran for six seasons from 1997 to 2003 and was created by Tom Fontana, who had previously worked as a writer and producer on St Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street. The show is a HBO multi-award winning slice of reality, containing strong language, realistic acting and powerful drama.

Much like any real maximum security facility, the population consists of disparate competing factions all waiting to erupt into violence at a moments notice. Brutality is a way of life to the head of the Aryan Brotherhood, Vern Schillinger (played by J.K. Simmons), who uses intimidation and humiliation to get what he wants. He finds an instinctual nemesis in new prisoner Kareem Said (played by Eamonn Walker), leader of the Muslim faction. The two spark off each other from Said's introduction in the first episode.

Apart from these two factions Oz contains a number of other groups including the Irish, the Latino's, the Homeboys the Italians and the Gays. Various other characters exist within the walls that do not naturally fall into any of the groups, they are the Others. The most important Other is Augustus Hill, played by Harold Perrineau who fulfils the role of narrator for the show, top and tailing each story to give the prisoners perspective on the system. By a strange quirk of fate Perrineau would later go on to become better known as Michael in Lost - being chased by very different Others.

Trying to assert some control in the midst of all this potential chaos are the staff, led by Emerald City Administrator Tim McManus (Terry Kinney) and Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson). Whilst all the actors are recognisable from various shows, officer Diane Wittlesey (Edie Falco) stands out as she went on to star as Tony's wife in The Sopranos.

Season One is presented over two discs. Disc one contains episodes one to four, with the remaining four on disc two.

Episode one, The Routine, introduces us to the prison and through the eyes of the new inmates we get an idea how the regime works. We meet Said for the first time, who promptly informs the warden that he is now in charge of the prison. What makes the episode so disturbing is not the various hardened criminals, who seem to be no better or worse than each other, but the introduction of an everyman character in the form of Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), a lawyer convicted of killing a young girl whilst drunk behind the wheel. In this he is unlike the career criminals, which allows the audience to identify with the character. Beecher's lack of preparation for the reality of Oz mirrors our own, making the violence and indignities heaped upon him seem all the more horrific.

Episode two, Visits: Conjugal and Otherwise: Beecher gets a visit from his wife whilst Alverez (Kirk Acevedo), who is recovering in hospital from his introductory stabbing, discovers that he is going to be a father.

Episode three, God's Chillin': With the prison already in a high state of tension following a number of killings, governor Devlin (Zeljko Ivanek), who had previously banned both smoking and conjugal visits decides to pay a call. It can't be just me that thinks that this rates as one of the worst decisions I've ever heard.

Episode four, Capital 1, and we wade through a particularly disturbing episode. Devlin continues his mandate of harsh treatment by reinstating the death sentence in Oz, his political toadying will cost two of the inmates their lives.

Episode five, Straight Life: Drugs have always been a problem in Oz, but for the warden and the administrator things have defiantly gotten out of hand.

Episode six, To Your Health, and more than one of the inmates is having a few medical problems. Said has a heart attack after refusing his medication, the Italian Boss suspects that someone has put ground glass in his food and Beecher, who's indignity has reach an all time low as a dress wearing neo-Nazi's girlfriend, finally flips out on PCP.

Episode seven, Plan B, and the fallout from the previous episode plays to its violent conclusion, with an inevitable death.

Episode eight, A game of Checkers, and hell is released in Emerald city. The growing tensions that have built up over the preceding episodes have no outlet other than a full scale prison riot.

The discs come with Dutch, English, French and Italian subtitles, with an audio track in English, French or Italian. The show is presented in the original 4:3 with stereo sound track. Although the picture isn't as sharp as it could be, this actually works in the show's favour. This, combined with the Steady Cam shots and often extreme angles used, forces the audience away from the position of uninvolved participant to complicit voyeur.

Oddly enough for such a successful show, the discs come with absolutely no extras, which really knocks points off this otherwise excellent box set.

Charles Packer

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