The first episode of OZ is striking for its uniqueness, both good and bad. For 1997*, its frank depiction of casual violence and brutal prison sex is incredibly brave and, as the first hour-long drama produced by HBO, it's foreshadowing the violence of later fare, like the business-like killing of The Sopranos, and the eye-popping vengeance of Deadwood.
But much of OZ's original ambition is its downfall. The first episode, and the first season in particular, suffer from too much liberalism, not only in the overly self-righteous narration, the ridiculous extremes of Tobias Beecher's story (which lasts through all 56 episodes), and the horrific camera work. It's as if the producers were afraid of never getting past the pilot, and shoved as much as they could into one hour.
Bad camera work:
"The Routine" primarily follows two characters, Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergeson) and Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda), one who makes it the length of the series, and one who doesn't make it past episode one. The routine in question refers to not only Beecher learning the routine of prison, from when the lights go out to when you get raped, and Ortolani slowly succombing to the desperation of having been in the routine for years.
Beecher's story gets off to a bad start. An upper-class lawyer and family man, Beecher is also an alcoholic, and killed a young girl while driving drunk. Once in prison he finds the routine unbelievable, then learns that he can trust no one, as he is alternately befriended and then abused by neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons).
Beecher is unfit for prison not only because of his social class, but also because he does not belong to one of the prison tribes. In a theme that runs throughout the series, OZ is portrayed as a world with rigid social boundaries. The drug trade in this season is run by the Italians, the Brothers work for them, while the Latinos are on the outside and want it. There are also the Aryan Brotherhood; the Bikers (loosely affiliated with the AB); the Christians; the Irish; the gays; the "Others" (who Beecher clings to); and most importantly, the Muslims, who generally isolate themselves but recruit from the ranks of the drug-dealing Brothers. Racial lines are a big character on OZ, and the dynamics rarely change. When lines are crossed, it tends to be a major storyline that causes waves throughout the prison.
Dino Ortolani is Beecher's opposite. He is tough and a good fighter and a high-ranking member of the Italians. He has a primo work assignment in the kitchen and is surrounded by friends. Yet mentally, Dino is an outsider. He has slowly been worn down by the routine of prison and no longer really cares if he lives or dies. Dino is well-written, and has a believable story arc in his only starring episode.
One of the better elements of the OZ style established by "The Routine" is the flashback crime machine. As inmates are introduced by narration giving their name, prisoner number and a list of their crimes, if necessary
Another positive element is using the show as a political platform. This can be cloying. The lessons are drawn in big black and white strokes, and sometimes it's just to much for me to handle. However, the show does handle questions about prisoner's rights fairly well. The realities of prison are magnified (it's hard to not be cliched in just an hour), but the show does draw attention to big debates that have been in the press since the time OZ started until today. Some of the are matters of policy, like the debate over smoking in prisons and conjugal visits, and others are ongoing "prison issues" like violence, sexual violence, drugs and health care.
Important Characters Introduced
Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau, Jr.): The narrator, and a fine one at that. Hill is not seen much outside of his narrative duties in this episode, but will get his own backstory and storylines in the future.
Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker): Chocolate, chocolate, make it melt! Said is the shows best character, played by the finest (in looks and in skill) actor. It's a man's crime that he is not a huge star.
Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje): Gorgeous and compelling. Adebisi seems like just another dealer in this episode, but will prove to be one of the most exciting characters in OZ. He becomes a criminal mastermind and a prison Caligula. And we never learn how he keeps that little hat on his head.
Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo): Poor, sad Alvarez. Alternately the leader and the bitch of the Latinos, Alvarez just can't catch a break. Luckily, he's handsome.
Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons): Despite many good-guy roles on television and file, Simmons is a terror as Bern Schillinger, the head of the Aryan Brotherhood. He's doughy in this episode, but becomes cut later on, but he is always fearsome. Vern is a terrible sadist, and the war between him and Tobias Beecher is the only storyline that last from episode one all the way to the end.
Ryan O'Reilly (Dean Winters): The most manipulative man to ever take a mugshot in red panties! No matter who is nominally in charge, Ryan is running OZ from the first day he walks in. He
O'Reilly Death Watch
One-Rival Dino Ortoloni, who went to prison for shooting Ryan. Ryan takes him out and never gets his hands dirty.
Food for Thought
1. We learn later on that the judge who sentenced Beecher to 10 years for manslaughter wanted to "make an example" of him. A prominent white lawyer from a prominent family, with three young children (the baby disappears for a few seasons then pops back up when the writers run out of ways to torture poor Toby), gets 10 hard years? In the world of OZ, where we are constantly preached to about the sins of politicians, guards and prison administrators, which is clearly an unjust world in which Beecher would either go free or be sent to a minimum security facility, Beecher's imprisonment smacks of "Oh shit! We don't have and 'good' white guys!" There is no drama if the viewing public can't relate to any characters, and Beecher represents the "It Could Happen To You" middle class viewer.
2. Tim McManus' inconsistent administration. This is one of the worst themes on OZ. McManus is a sniveling character and a bleeding heart liberal who created "Emerald City", but this is never consistent. He makes decisions about inamtes and their futures based on pettiness. In "The Routine", McManus punishes Ortolani by taking away his conjugal visit and putting him on duty in the AIDS ward. He clearly does these things out of spite, even while giving other reasons. He endangers the lives of others because of it. This will reoccur, over and over again.
3. Would Billy Keene really make a pass at Dino in the shower? His brother Jefferson may be the head of the Brothers, but at this point in OZ, "we don't kill wops". No one can be that stupid.
Guard: "Your brother's a fag. They say it runs in families. Are you a fag Keene?"
Jefferson Keene: "Why don't you suck my dick and find out?"
Unbelievable Elements We're Expected to Believe
1. That Tobias Beecher was ever sent to OZ, much less paired with cop-killer Adebisi as a roommate.
2. Prison guards can be paid to do anything, including watching you burn a man alive.
3. That a "Hello" from Ryan's mentally-challenged brother, Cyril, is enough to arrange the death of another man.
4. That women want to have sex with Tim McManus. This is clearly impossible.
5. That Jon Seda is Italian. He is clearly Puerto Rican.
*The number one show in 1997 was ER, so its not like American audiences weren't accustomed to brutality on their TV screens. But just a quick glance at the rest of the top shows (Seinfeld; Suddenly Susan; Home Improvement; and Touched By an Angel, to name a few) is enough to to tell you that OZ was a lot more than what your average viewer was used to. The only other dramas to crack the top 20 besides ER were NYPD Blue and The X-Files.