Oz: Season 1 (1997)


Season 1
Oz

Critics Consensus

The patient zero of HBO dramas pushes the envelope in graphic content and storytelling ambition, but its relentless provocations dangerously teeter toward schlock.

80%

TOMATOMETER

Critic Ratings: 25

96%

Audience Score

User Ratings: 123

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Episodes

Air date: Jul 12, 1997

The premiere episode of HBO's Oz, directed by Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That), gives viewers an idea of the kind of graphic violence and deviant behavior they can expect from the series. Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), a wheelchair-bound convict, serves as the narrator, providing a dark philosophical overview to the action. He introduces many of the characters, giving their names, serial numbers, crime, and sentence while a brief flashback of the crime plays. Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) is out of his element, even in the seemingly safer experimental rehabilitation unit known as "Emerald City," run by well-intentioned control freak Tim McManus (Terry Kinney). Beecher is a former attorney who has been sentenced to 15 years for vehicular manslaughter. Beecher is introduced to his sponsor, Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda), a hot-tempered thug who's connected to Oz's resident Mob boss, Nino Schibetta (Tony Musante). Every new prisoner in "Em City" gets a sponsor, who's supposed to help him adjust, but Ortolani has no use for Beecher, so when Beecher's cellmate, Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), starts shaking him down, he's on his own. Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) takes an interest, suggesting Beecher ask McManus for a transfer to another cell. Beecher gratefully takes Schillinger's advice, and ends up bunking with him. Then Beecher finds out that his new cellmate runs the Aryan Brotherhood. "You're mine now," Schillinger tells him. He later burns a swastika tattoo into Beecher's buttocks. Ortolani, meanwhile, has his own problems. A hood he shot, Ryan O'Reily (Dean Winters), gets sent to Oz, but Schibetta warns Ortolani against taking revenge. Ortolani also beats a gay prisoner who comes on to him. The cagey O'Reily convinces the gay man's brother, the leader of Emerald City's gangbangers, Jefferson Keane (Leon), to team up with him to arrange for Ortolani's murder.

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Air date: Jul 14, 1997

In this episode, directed by Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity), Hill (Harold Perrineau), the narrator, explains that love is a four-letter word -- a curse -- in Oz. Officer Diane Wittlesey (Edie Falco of The Sopranos) takes an interest in Beecher (Lee Tergesen), who hasn't left his cell -- not even for meals -- since his Nazi cellmate, Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), made him his "prag." She convinces Beecher to see Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno), the prison psychiatrist, and arrange a conjugal visit with his wife. But when Beecher returns to his cell afterward, Schillinger is looking at the family photos Beecher had hidden, and threatens their safety. The prisoners stage a minor riot in the cafeteria when they hear from Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson) that, following the recommendations of Governor Devlin (Zeljko Ivanek), the prison has banned smoking. Further unrest is created when Devlin proposes eliminating conjugal visits. Hill's arrest is shown in a flashback. He shot and killed a cop and in retaliation was thrown from the roof of a building, paralyzing him from the waste down. When Father Ray Mukada (B.D. Wong) learns that Miguel Alvarez's (Kirk Acevedo) girlfriend is expecting his baby, he does everything in his power to convince Alvarez to take responsibility for the child. Meanwhile, police investigator Burrano (Skipp Sudduth) looks into the vicious killing of Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda). Nino Schibetta (Tony Musante) lets it be known that no contraband will be sold until he finds the killer. Schibetta rejects an offer from McManus (Terry Kinney) to let him visit his dying wife, in exchange for not harming the killer. Finally, Schibetta, suspecting that O'Reily (Dean Winters) was involved in Ortolani's death, has Burrano pressure O'Reily into ratting out the killer, Johnny Post (Tim McAdams), in order to protect himself.

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Air date: Jul 21, 1997

The murders of Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda) and Johnny Post (Tim McAdams) have increased tensions inside the prison and out. Warden Glynn (Ernie Hudson) calls in mob capo Schibetta (Tony Musante), gangbanger Keane (Leon), and Black Muslim leader Said (Eamonn Walker) and tells them he'll lock the prison down if there's more violence. Keane later finds a package in his cell, but it's not a peace offering; it's a piece of Post. Beecher (Lee Tergensen) is still being sexually abused by Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), who also humiliates Beecher by making him lick his boots. Beecher tells a sympathetic Sister Pete (Rita Moreno) he's been praying to God to get out of Oz. He tells her he made "one mistake, and...God took everything." Sixteen-year-old killer Kenny Wangler (J.D. Williams) arrives in Em City and wants to join Keane's crew. Said, trying to guide the teen, angrily confronts Keane when he finds them doing drugs. Surprisingly, Keane breaks down, and asks the Muslim leader for his help. But as Hill (Harold Perrineau) explains in the narration, "Sometimes when you see God, you lose sight of other men." Keane stops doing drugs, and turns his back on violence. He tells O'Reily (Dean Winters) that they have to repent for their part in the murder of Ortolani, and O'Reily, fearing for his own safety, immediately goes to Schibetta and rats Keane out, offering to arrange for Keane's death "as a sign of good faith." O'Reily gets a guard to help him set Keane up, and Keane instinctively kills one of his attackers in self-defense. Meanwhile, Father Mukada (B.D. Wong) convinces Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo) to participate in the birth of his son, but when the boy is born with a potentially fatal birth defect, Alvarez mutilates himself in an effort to appease God.

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Air date: Jul 28, 1997

Thanks to Governor Devlin's (Zeljko Ivanek) machinations, the state has reinstated the death penalty, and Keane has been sentenced to death for murdering another inmate. The prison expects protests, and Glynn (Ernie Hudson) fires Sister Pete (Rita Moreno) when she joins the protestors. O'Reily (Dean Winters) carelessly lets Beecher (Lee Tergensen) know that Keane was set up. Beecher goes to great lengths to try to help Keane, only to find out that Keane is at peace and actually wants to die. This setback, along with the continuing abuse by Schillinger (J. K. Simmons), has Beecher snorting heroin to keep himself sane. When Keane finds out that his sister is dying and needs a kidney donation, he enlists the aid of Said (Eamon Walker) and McManus (Terry Kinney) to get a stay of execution, so he can donate his kidney. McManus also arranges for Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo) to visit his sick baby, who dies before Alvarez arrives at the hospital. Alvarez is distraught, but tells Father Mukada (B.D. Wong), "I feel better about myself. I never loved anything before in my life." McManus has a fight with Dr. Gloria Nathan (Lauren Velez), whom he'd been dating, when he finds out she's participating in Keane's execution. He finds comfort in the arms of Officer Diane Wittlesey (Edie Falco), and their rough sex in an empty cell is intercut with the lethal injection of Keane. Soon thereafter, Richard L'Italien (Eric Roberts), another death row prisoner, finds out that the Supreme Court has refused to hear his final appeal. Glynn tells him he'll be executed the following day, and L'Italien confesses to murdering another 38 women, in addition to the one murder he's been convicted of. When Sister Pete asks for her job back, Glynn happily welcomes her return.

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Air date: Aug 4, 1997

The drug trade at Oz is thriving, and McManus (Terry Kinney) wants to stop it. He offers Schibetta (Tony Musante) a deal to testify against the suppliers. When Schibetta refuses, McManus transfers all the other Italians out of Em City, leaving the capo isolated. Pressured by his new partners, Markstram (O.L. Duke) and Adebisi (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), Schibetta tells them the drugs are coming through the post office. The manipulative O'Reily (Dean Winters) overhears the information, and passes it along to Pokelwaldt (Brian Tarantina), a snitch. Then Markstram turns up dead in his cell, and Glynn (Ernie Hudson) belatedly tells McManus that the dead man was an undercover cop. McManus tells Diane (Edie Falco) that he loves her, but she says their night of passion was a mistake. A new prisoner arrives, Scott Ross (Stephen Gevedon), who has a history with Diane. She lets him know he'll get no special treatment, but when her overtime is cut, she's financially strapped, and agrees to help Ross smuggle cigarettes into Oz. Said (Eamon Walker) is suffering from hypertension, but refuses to take medication that might dull his mind. Schibetta asks O'Reily to help him eliminate competition by shutting down the guards' drug operation. O'Reily accomplishes this by convincing Pokelwaldt to rat on him when he makes a deal with his drug-running partner, Officer Healy (Steve Ryan). O'Reily gets thrown in the hole for a month and Healy gets fired. Sister Pete (Rita Moreno) gets Beecher (Lee Tergensen) to enter drug counseling, but he has a panic attack and races out during his first session. Schillinger (J. K. Simmons) continues to torment Beecher, making him wear lipstick and dress like a woman.

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Air date: Aug 11, 1997

After Rebadow (George Morfogen) is beaten and robbed by other prisoners, Dr. Nathan (Lauren Velez) suggests that they turn a cell block of the prison into a wing for less dangerous senior prisoners. She also asks McManus (Terry Kinney) out on a date, but he moodily rejects her. Glynn (Ernie Hudson) has heard rumors that McManus never leaves the prison, and expresses his concern. The increasingly unstable McManus later assaults one of the prisoners who beat up Rebadow. Groves (Sean Whitesell), the oddly chipper young man who is in Oz for killing and eating his parents, has a toothache, and makes an appointment with the prison dentist, who is understandably uneasy about putting his fingers in the killer's mouth. Scott Ross (Stephen Gevedon) later suggests that Groves sell his extracted tooth to a collector (and this was before /eBay). Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) forces Beecher (Lee Tergesen) to perform in drag for the prison talent show. Sister Pete (Rita Moreno) thinks Beecher sees himself as a victim, and brings in the mother of the girl he drunkenly ran down to remind Beecher of who the real victims are. Beecher decides he doesn't want to hate himself anymore. O'Reily (Dean Winters) gives him some PCP, and Beecher has a fit, smashing a chair through the glass wall of Schillinger's cell, injuring Schillinger's eye. Jackson Mayhew (actual NBA player Rick Fox) is a basketball star who arrives at Oz after assaulting a woman. He gets the star-struck Hill (Harold Perrineau) to take drugs again after two years of being clean. A new Muslim prisoner, Huseni Mershaw (Roger Guenveur Smith), challenges Said's (Eamon Walker) authority when Said stops him from fighting with a racist. Later, Said has a heart attack, and Mershaw blithely refuses to call for help.

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Air date: Aug 18, 1997

Said (Eamonn Walker) recovers surprisingly quickly from his heart attack, and punishes the power-hungry Huseni Mershaw (Roger Guenveur Smith) for not helping him. "This man is cast out!" Said tells his fellow Muslims, and Mershaw, despite an entreaty to Adebisi (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), finds himself isolated. In desperation, he goes to McManus (Terry Kinney) and Glynn (Ernie Hudson), telling them that Said is planning a riot. This sets off a shakedown in Em City, and Mershaw is branded a snitch. Before his transfer out of Em City, he tearfully tells Said, "All you taught me was that your God is full of hate and vengeance." Mershaw is later found dead, an apparent suicide. Said talks to the press about the string of recent deaths in Oz, causing Glynn to cut off his access to the media, and crack down on the Muslim population in retribution. Said's power impresses Groves (Sean Whitesell), who tells him, "The whole Allah thing -- it's awesome," and is inspired to kill Warden Glynn. His murder attempt fails, and he ends up inadvertently killing a guard who intercedes. Sentenced to death for this murder, he asks to be executed by firing squad. Hill (Harold Perrineau) is still struggling with his drug problem, thanks to the influence of Mayhew (Rick Fox), but he finds solace in helping a fellow inmate, Dobbins (Zuill Bailey), who is an accomplished young cellist. Beecher (Lee Tergesen) returns to Em City after doing time in the hole for his PCP-induced attack on Schillinger (J.K. Simmons). Harassed by Schillinger's Nazi cohorts, he requests a transfer, but is denied. Pushed to the breaking point, he takes his ugly revenge on Schillinger.

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Air date: Aug 25, 1997

Tensions at the Oswald State Penitentiary come to a head in the finale of Oz's first season. After being attacked by Beecher (Lee Tergesen), Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) returns to Em City, telling a skeptical McManus (Terry Kinney) that he's a changed man, and will not seek revenge. Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) is concerned about the well-being of his two teenage sons, and plans to behave himself so he'll have a shot at parole. Beecher provokes him, and lets him know he'll try to foul up his plans. McManus confronts Diane Wittlesey (Edie Falco) when he catches her smuggling cigarettes to Schillinger's pal, Scott Ross (Stephen Gevedon). She tells Ross that it's over, but he threatens to go to the warden if she stops supplying him. In the wake of Groves' (Sean Whitesell) murder of a guard, prisoners have been beaten without cause, and many guards have been suspended. Understaffed, the guards in Em City find themselves overpowered when a riot breaks out. Guards are beaten and taken hostage, as is Father Mukada (B.D. Wong). Dobbins (Zuill Bailey), the cellist, is brutally stabbed during the riot, and Hill (Harold Perrineau) persuades a remorseful Mayhew (Rick Fox) to bring the wounded man out of Em City. Said (Eamonn Walker), Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo), Ross, and Adebisi (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje) form a fragile alliance to control their respective groups, and come up with a list of demands. McManus tries to assuage his feelings of guilt by offering himself as a hostage in exchange for two wounded guards. Meanwhile, Glynn (Ernie Hudson) finds the prisoners' demands for the restoration of conjugal visits and smoking privileges quite reasonable, but Governor Devlin (Zeljko Ivanek) refuses to negotiate, and calls in the National Guard.

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Oz: Season 1 Photos

Tv Season Info

Series 1 of the prison drama follows prison workers Warden Leo Glynn and Tim McManus, as well as prisoners Augustus Hill and Kareem Saïd as they navigate life at the Oswald State Correctional Facility, nickname "OZ".

Critic Reviews for Oz Season 1

All Critics (25) | Top Critics (17)

Oz morally flatlines from the start, leaving no opportunity for ambiguity or introspection. Its claustrophobic style instead zeroes in on graphic acts, until the whole exercise begins to resemble a well-acted slasher film.

Feb 3, 2021 | Full Review…

By a margin as long as Alcatraz island, it is the most realistic look at prison life ever shown on the little screen.

Jan 29, 2021 | Full Review…

For all its technical dazzle and bracing content, Oz never overcomes a dramatic hurdle: It's nearly impossible to care about the characters.

May 29, 2018 | Full Review…

In spite of the realistic starkness, executive producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson manage to create characters we can care about.

Jan 29, 2021 | Rating: 4.5/5 | Full Review…

You'll vow never to rob another bank. Whether you'll vow to return to this creepily realized world-within-a-world week after week is something else -- a sentence you'll have to impose on yourself.

Jan 29, 2021 | Rating: B+ | Full Review…

There are some interesting stylistic innovations and stories that seize your attention and don't let go. The problem is people; the characters are interesting, but that's pretty much as far as it goes.

Jan 29, 2021 | Rating: 3/4 | Full Review…

Oz is a distinguished effort, one that after two episodes left me wanting more. Rich in storytelling, the series promised still more riches with a complicated landscape within which even the peripheral characters have stories to tell.

Feb 4, 2021 | Full Review…

Oz is a spellbinder Viewers will find themselves completely engrossed in the power politics and elaborate rituals of penitentiary life.

Jan 29, 2021 | Full Review…

By the end of the second episode, I was well hooked, anxious to know just how the crookies would crumble. Or not. There's drama even in simple survival.

Jan 29, 2021 | Full Review…

With Oz, the network sets a new standard for adult drama. Against the gritty backdrop of a U.S. prison, the show's fist-in-your-face realism is like nothing you've seen on television before.

Jan 29, 2021 | Full Review…

Oz isn't exactly a laugh riot. It is, however, a remarkable piece of television. HBO's license to use strong language and nudity has seldom been put to better use than it is here, where it's employed not as punctuation but to truly shock.

Jan 28, 2021 | Full Review…

Some viewers may be repelled by the sheer concentration of ugliness... But you won't escape easily from this drama's grip.

May 29, 2018 | Rating: B+ | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Oz: Season 1

  • Feb 26, 2020
    it cool but how the get the movies
  • Sep 16, 2019
    It's a bit ridiculous, but that's what makes it so much fun.
  • Jun 04, 2017
    Whats impressive about OZ is that it got 8 seasons. Such a ridiculous series. Some of the many, many deaths were quite funny though. Finger nail slashing was the most comical.

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