A new prison drama worth mentioning comes every few years. In 1997, it was Oz, a show about a prison with a cell block built under idealistic views of rehabilitation. They called it Emerald City. Oz ended with six seasons after wrapping up most of story lines that kept their viewers tuning in. Since then, there wasn’t a show that brought its audience into the world of prison life quite the way that HBO did.
Netflix has quickly gone from being a subscription-based streaming service to producing an arsenal of original content. Among its shows, Orange Is the New Black is getting a lot of attention. You may have even seen a commercial for their second season recently. While this Netflix original is a show about life in prison, one of its characters makes it clear when she says “this is not Oz”.
The differences between these two shows may be obvious, but there are a lot of similarities that motivate its viewers to continue to the next episode and even binge-watch an entire season. It’s plain to see that the shows take place in two different settings. The maximum security prison of Oswald Correctional Facility is much darker and grittier than the minimum security women’s jail that is Litchfield. Don’t expect a character to die every episode or two like you would expect from Oz.
From the start of each show, we are introduced to a fish-out-of-water character that is incarcerated and tries to adapt to life as a prisoner. In Oz, we meet Tobias Beecher, a lawyer who is disbarred after being convicted for killing a child while driving under the influence of his alcohol addiction. Piper Chapman, Orange’s protagonist, finds that her past has caught up with her when she is named as a member of a drug ring when she only helped carry drug money one time. Both characters are convicted for one mistake in an otherwise law-abiding life.
They quickly learn of the tribes that form in prison and each are offered a spot in one of them. It doesn’t take long, however, for either to end up on the wrong side of someone in a position of power. This is the first step in a process that changes them from person they came in as. Tobias and Piper are both forever changed because of who they had to become to survive.
Orange and Oz are both stories about a host of people as opposed to a single star. We are introduced to a variety of characters, each with a distinct personalities and a past that led them to where they are now. A deeper look into the characters is illustrated through flashbacks in both shows and serves well to show not only how a character ended up behind bars, but helps explain some of their motivations. In Orange, it can be a bit confusing for some of the flashbacks because they are not accompanied by the words of Augustus Hill. When you are taken back to a character’s childhood, you can struggle to find subtle hints to answer the question: “Who is this person, really?”
Among the cast of characters are members of the prison administration, who have their own power struggles within the prison and outside. The correctional officers can be as interesting as the prisoners in both shows and there’s a fine line between them and the inmates.
While Orange Is the New Black is not a replacement for Oz, it does use a lot of what worked for the HBO series while adding some of its own style. Some episodes may have you forgetting that you’re watching this on Netflix and not a premium entertainment channel.