BACK TO KANSAS: The last episode of Oz aired earlier this week, and part of me is sad that my favorite TV drama is disappearing. Another part is happy that the show survived six years with its artistic integrity intact, and that it's ending things now rather than entering a long decline a la The X-Files or Ally McBeal. (Did I just compare Oz to Ally McBeal?) The final episode did its job well, drawing the series' themes and conflicts to a satisfactory conclusion. It did leave some narrative threads unresolved, but that was clearly intentional. Life's story arcs do not simultaneously resolve themselves in an hour, or even in a specially expanded installment of 110 minutes. Neither did the arcs of Oz.
They nearly did, though, in the program's first season -- eight episodes that, taken together, may constitute the best serial narrative in the history of television. It took a while, in the first couple of hours, even to see that a larger tale was being told. We simply seemed to be watching fragments of prison life, as characters took turns interacting with each other; the episodes were united by themes, not stories. Then key characters started to die, while others were transformed radically by changing circumstances. Power shifted constantly among the players and the tribes; the social web never stopped evolving. In a perfect climax, that web exploded into a riot, inverting, distorting, and dashing the prison's many hierarchies.
It would have been impossible for the subsequent seasons to match the quality of that first year, but they came close. Seasons two, three, and four were consistently excellent, marred only occasionally by an unbelievable plot twist or a too-loosely constructed episode. The final two years were more uneven, but still sometimes reached incredible heights.
Oz mixed gritty realism with giddy surrealism, storytelling with broadsides, soap opera with high art. It had more interesting things to say about power, liberty, responsibility, and tragedy than most of the films and novels of the last 30 years. I'll miss it. But I'm glad to see it end so gracefully.