OK, it's violent and bloody and vicious and cruel. It's also wildly creative, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted (with very few exceptions) and has a great framing device. The stories are both filled with detail and minutiae, and also have overarching moral tales and "big picture" flow. At the end of almost every episode you'll probably find yourself muttering "This is SUCH a good show!"
Although it is ostensibly the story of a prison and its many prisoners, 'Oz' can be viewed as primarily the story of one man, Tobias Beecher. Beecher has committed vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk. Because Beecher is a lawyer, the court decides to make an example of him and sends him to maximum security at Oswald Penitentiary. His journey through Oz is basically the rest of the series, and it's certainly no yellow brick road he follows. Everything that you could imagine happening in a prison setting happens, and probably a lot you wouldn't imagine. He gets assigned to "Em" City (Emerald City), an experimental unit in Oz; the goal of Em City is to try a different living environment, one that might give the prisoners a chance at changing their lives and possibly rehabilitate them. Managed by a true prison reform zealot, Tim McManus, Em City is for many prisoners the only hope in their lives. The inmates of Em City are some of the most brutal offenders in the entire penitentiary - McManus insists that these are the prisoners to try to reach. McManus also picks newer prisoners, ones that don't have life sentences, to add to the mix and to give them a shot at rehabilitation. Every episode has a storyteller - most of the time the storyteller is Augustus Hill, shot while killing a cop and now confined to a wheelchair. Because he is unable to be physically brutal anymore, because he is more imprisoned than even his fellow prisoners, Augustus is very insightful and is used to heighten and clarify themes for the audience.
The other inmates in Em City all have their own character development and story arcs - some are impressively vibrant but brief, others last for the whole series - but ultimately the writers always return to Beecher and his story. His friends (few), his enemies (many), his family, and his relationships with the prison staff.
Amid the worst that prison can dish out, the inmates struggle with the meaning of religion, with definitions of family, with the corruption of politics, with friendship, betrayal, and ultimately, survival. There are moments of sheer wanton destruction, unspeakable violence, shocking cruelty, and pure evil. It's prison! There is nothing glorified here; inmates do drugs to escape the horror of their realities, gangs murder each other over trivialities, inmates and guards commit rape just because they can. But how they manage to survive - and IF they manage to survive - keeps you watching.
Some key performances: The always perfect J.K. Simmons as Schillinger, the leader of the Aryans; Chris Meloni as Chris Keller (quite a different part than his character on L&O: SVU!); Lee Tergesen as Beecher; Eamonn Walker as Said, the leader of the Muslims; Dean and Scott Winters (real-life brothers) as Ryan and Cyril O'Reilly; and Kirk Acevedo as Miguel Alvarez, a member of the Latinos. But honestly, the whole cast is excellent. Even most of the "guest starring" roles - new inmates who practically have an expiration date stamped on them - are good, and at least are pretty interesting.
It's coming out on DVD in dribs and drabs - rent it, borrow it, steal it, whatever. But watch it!