"Oz" is the nickname for the Oswald State Correctional Facility, formerly Oswald State Penitentiary, a fictional level 4 maximum-security state prison, apparently in New York (given the New York state flag and motto seen in the background when public officials are shown speaking publicly, references to "upstate", a term commonly used in New York, and the format of the prisoner ID numbers). The prison is most likely named after New York Commissioner of Correctional Services Russell George Oswald, who was the head of New York's penal system at the time of the Attica Prison riot. The character Tim McManus refers to Attica as his hometown and the riot as his original impetus for his wanting to set up Emerald City.
The nickname "Oz" is also a reference to the classic film The Wizard of Oz (1939), which popularized the phrase "There's no place like home." In contrast, a poster for the series uses the tagline: "It's no place like home". Moreover, most of the series' story arcs are set in "Emerald City", a setting from the fictional Land of Oz in L. Frank Baum's Oz books, first described in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).
In 2008, the show was placed at #73 on Entertainment Weekly's "New TV Classics" list.
The majority of Oz's story arcs are set in "Emerald City", named for a setting from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). In this experimental unit of the prison, unit manager Tim McManus emphasizes rehabilitation and learning responsibility during incarceration, rather than carrying out purely punitive measures. Emerald City is an extremely controlled environment, with a carefully managed balance of members from each racial and social group, intended to ease tensions among these various factions.
Under McManus and Warden Leo Glynn, all inmates in "Em City" struggle to fulfill their own needs. Some fight for power – either over the drug trade or over other inmate factions and individuals. Others, corrections officers and inmates alike, simply want to survive, some long enough to make parole and others just to see the next day. The show offers a no holds barred account of prison life. The show's wheelchair-bound narrator, inmate Augustus Hill, explains the show, and provides context, thematic analysis, and a sense of humor.
Oz chronicles McManus' attempts to keep control over the inmates of Em City. There are many groups of inmates throughout the show, and not everyone within each group survives the show's events. There are the African American Homeboys (Wangler, Redding, Poet, Keane, Supreme Allah) and Muslims (Said, Arif, Hamid Khan), the Wiseguys (Pancamo, Nappa, Schibetta, Zanghi, Urbano), the Aryan Brotherhood (Schillinger, Robson, Mark Mack), the Latinos of El Norte (Alvarez, Morales, Guerra, Hernandez), the Irish (the O'Reily brothers), the gays (Hanlon, Cramer), the bikers (Hoyt, Sands), the Christians (Cloutier, Coushaine, Cudney) and many other individuals not completely affiliated with one particular group (Rebadow, Busmalis, Keller, Stanislofsky). In contrast to the dangerous criminals, character Tobias Beecher gives a look at a usually law-abiding man who made one fatal drunk-driving mistake.
The ensemble cast includes Lee Tergesen, Christopher Meloni, Ernie Hudson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Harold Perrineau Jr., Eamonn Walker, Rita Moreno, Terry Kinney, Betty Buckley, Kathryn Erbe, B. D. Wong, J.D. Williams, J. K. Simmons, Dean Winters, Scott William Winters, Kirk Acevedo, Erik King, Evan Seinfeld, David Zayas, Lauren Vélez, Otto Sanchez, Robert Clohessy, and Edie Falco.
Mason Adams, Bill Boggs, Didi Conn, Peter Criss, Jonathan Demme, Charles S. Dutton, Gordon Elliott, Bill Fagerbakke, Rick Fox, Uta Hagen, Roxanne Hart, Edward Herrmann, Dana Ivey, Lord Jamar, David Johansen, Eartha Kitt, Robert Klein, Tom Ligon, LL Cool J, Gavin MacLeod, Master P, Anne Meara, Method Man, Milo O'Shea, Luke Perry, Roger Rees, Eric Roberts, Grant Shaud, Ally Sheedy, Elaine Stritch, Roy Thinnes, Treach, Joyce Van Patten, Ben Vereen, Kathleen Widdoes and Manny Yarbrough have made appearances on the show.
Actors listed as "recurring" are credited as "also starring" in the opening title sequence, actors listed as "guests" are credited in the end credits.
Oz took advantage of the freedoms of premium cable to show elements of coarse language, drug use, violence, frontal nudity, homosexuality, and male rape, as well as ethnic and religious conflicts that would have been unacceptable to traditional advertiser-supported American broadcast television.
In Australia, Oz was screened uncensored on the free-to-air channel, SBS. This was also the case in Brazil, where it was aired by the SBT Network Corporation, late at night; in Ireland, where the series aired on free-to-air channel TG4 at 11 p.m.; in Israel, where Oz was displayed on the free-to-air commercial Channel 2; in Italy, where it was aired on the free-to-air Italia 1; and in the United Kingdom, where Channel 4 aired the show late at night.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was aired on the federal TV station called FTV. In Canada, Oz aired on the Showcase Channel at Friday 10 p.m. EST. In Croatia, Estonia, and Slovenia, the show was aired late at night on public, non-commercial, state-owned channels HRT, ETV, and RTV SLO, respectively. In Denmark, it appeared late at night on the non-commercial public service channel DR1. In Finland, it broadcast on the free-to-air channel Nelonen (TV4). In France, the show aired on commercial cable channel 'Serie Club,' also late at night. In Malaysia, full episodes of Oz aired late at night on ntv7, while the censored version aired during the day. In the Netherlands, Oz aired on the commercial channel RTL 5. In New Zealand Oz aired on The Box at 9.30pm on Wednesdays in the early 2000s (decade). In Norway and Sweden, it aired on the commercial channels ZTV and TV3 late at night. In Panama, Oz aired on RPC-TV Channel 4 in a late-night hour. In Portugal, Oz aired late at night on SIC Radical, one of the SIC channels in the cable network. In Serbia, Oz aired on RTV BK Telecom. In Spain, the show aired on premium channel Canal+. In Turkey, Oz was aired on Cine5; DiziMax also aired the re-runs.
On April 21, 2009, Variety announced that starting May 31, DirecTV will broadcast all 56 episodes in their original form without commercials and in up-scaled "high definition" on The 101 Network available to all subscribers. The episodes will also be available through DirecTV's On Demand service.
The series was co-produced by HBO and Rysher Entertainment, and the underlying U.S. rights lie with HBO, which has released the entire series on DVD in North America. The international rights were owned originally by Rysher, then Paramount Pictures/Domestic Television after that company acquired Rysher. CBS Studios International currently owns the international TV rights, and Paramount Home Entertainment/CBS DVD owns the international DVD rights.
HBO Home Video has released all six seasons of Oz on DVD in Region 1 and Region 2. The Region 1 releases contain numerous special features including commentaries, deleted scenes and featurettes. The Region 2 releases do not contain any special features.
Critical reception of Oz is mostly positive. The first season of Oz has been ranked a 70 based on the rating aggregator website Metacritic, indicating generally favorable reviews by critics. Caryn James from The New York Times stated: "Set almost entirely in the prison, a high-tech horror with glass-walled cells, Oz can also be unpleasant to watch, it is so gruesome and claustrophobic. Yet... as the series moves beyond its introductory shock value, it becomes more serious, disturbing and gripping.... The point of Oz, with its depiction of guilty men in torturous circumstances, is never subtle, but it is complicated and strong." Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune wrote: "Engaging, often Brutal."
Other reviews were more critical of the series. Frederic Bidle of the Boston Globe said: "A pretentious exercise in cheap thrills, by great talents allowed to run amok." Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times reported: "Its unique and arresting style don't earn endorsements here... there's no light at the end of the tunnel, or a tunnel- that offer central characters to root or pull for... Be forewarned that Oz is flat-out the most violent and graphically sexual series on TV."
Avatar Records released a soundtrack containing East Coast, West Coast, and Southern hip hop on January 9, 2001. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Soundtrack Charts, #42 on the Billboard 200, and #8 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. The soundtrack featured the song "Behind the Walls" recorded by Kurupt & Nate Dogg.