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TV CRITIC’S CORNER

The wonderful foresight of ‘Oz’

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DEAN WINTERS and LAUREN VELEZ on “Oz,” which ran on HBO from 1997 to 2003.

By Globe Staff 

Members of the cast and crew of HBO’s “Oz” reunited recently at PaleyFest New York, close to the 20th anniversary of the premiere of the show.

I’ve always had great respect for “Oz,” which was created by Tom Fontana, not only because it was so good throughout its 1997-2003 run but because it really went there. Before Tony Soprano, before Walter White, the folks of “Oz” were taking a deep dive into the as-yet uninhabited waters of TV anti-heroism. The actors on that show, about men in prison, were willing to do anything — no matter how gross or obscene — in service of their characters.

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Now every cable channel and streaming service offers up at least one hero or heroine to hate, but back then, most TV outlets, and particularly the ad-supported networks, programmed according to a firm belief that viewers didn’t want to watch complicated bad guys as much as they wanted full-on heroes and villains. People couldn’t handle gray, the TV honchos thought, only black and white. Now, as the Golden Age of TV has given way to the Platinum Age of TV, or whatever you want to call it, we understand just how off-base those assumptions were.

At PaleyFest, “Oz” alums Edie Falco, Lee Tergesen, Terry Kinney, Eamonn Walker, Dean Winters, Craig Grant, and Fontana gathered to talk about the series, which was the first one-hour drama produced by HBO. And Winters made the point about the show’s role as a pioneer. “I think we were so far ahead of the curve that the country didn’t know how to take it,” he said. “We got a good reception, but for a show 20 years ago that had a Muslim as the lead, a gay love story, had a bad nun, and all this crazy [stuff] like the drugs and the violence, and then people talk about that today, and I’m like ‘We were doing that 20 years ago.’”

Tergesen agreed. “When ‘Oz’ started 20 years ago there were three networks and Fox and that was about it,” he said. “Nobody else was making these kind of shows, and it really pushed the envelope of television.”


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.