The Show That Changed Television

Oz: The prison series that changed television as we know it.

"On the streets they call
me Mayhem."
Long before shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad were pop culture sensations. Before half the shows on the big four networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX) were mindless singing and dancing competitions, HBO began production of its first hour long drama with a gritty, fearless prison series called Oz.

Created by Tom Fontana, Oz set out to literally go where no television show had gone before. Set in the fictional Emerald City unit of the Oswald State Correctional Facility. the series depiction of prison life and culture broke nearly every barrier that existed on television at the time. Hardly an episode went by without someone being brutally raped, shanked, murdered  or otherwise abused. The language was completely unfiltered and full frontal male nudity was so common it would make Game of Thrones blush. And it worked. The show quickly gained pop culture and critical acclaim. The show went on to run for six seasons. By the time it wrapped in 2003 the landscape of television would already be changing.

"Did someone say sleepover?"
HBO wanted to be more than just a place to watch unedited movies and the occasional concert. They wanted to be a destination for original content and would challenge the major networks. Encouraged by the early success of Oz the network gave the green light to David Chase for The Sopranos. Other shows like The Wire and Sex in the City would follow. HBO had a new blueprint for success, allowing show creators the freedom to write and produce their own shows with little to no interference. Rival networks like Showtime took notice and began to copy the formula with programs of their own such as Dead Like Me, Weeds and Dexter.

The trickle-down effect would lead to basic cable networks getting in on the action and redefining their image. AMC picked up Mad Men in 2007 after it was rejected by both HBO and Showtime. The success of Mad Men would lead to AMC picking up Breaking Bad while they completely overhauled the channel in to a destination for original programming. TBS, FX and many other upstart cable networks would also follow suit.

"Bitch, call us New Kids
one more time!" 
While this renaissance of television dramas was happening on cable, the major networks largely turned to reality television due to its ultra-low production costs and (sadly) high ratings which translate in to bigger advertising dollars. The major networks loss was cable's gain as today virtually every drama worth watching is on one of the cable channels. So the next time you are enjoying an episode of Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, The Americans, Shameless or any of the other quality dramas currently on TV you can think back and say a little thank you to Oz, the brutal prison drama that changed the game. Just don’t drop the soap.

 -Brian Rohe