Before they were made into movies the prison dramas Fortune and Men's Eyes and Short Eyes were originally novels. However, another grim depiction of prison life, Oz, was written expressly for the small screen. It premiered on HBO the evening of July 12, 1997. Oz depicted life in an experimental wing of a prison and had an array of disturbed inmates (to put it mildly). The show was notorious for its foul language, violence, frontal nudity and depictions of homosexuality and male rape. And it was dripping with homoerotic tension.
What immediately comes to mind whenever I hear the name of the show is the gay couple Tobias Beecher and Chris Keller. This relationship didn't begin until the show's second season when Keller's sociopathic character was introduced. Their tempestuous relationship had to be one of the most dysfunctional ever shown on TV. And, wow, was Keller (played by Christopher Meloni) ever hot!
Before going to prison Keller and Beecher were both married and lived straight lives, so it appeared their relationship in prison was a situational one, but they did have feelings for each other. In fact, after Beecher was released Keller found a way to get him tossed back into prison. (Only one made it out of the series alive.) There were some other gay characters who were transvestites but their storylines weren't nearly as enthralling as those involving Keller and Beecher.
The show's cast also included gay actor BD Wong and gay faves Betty Buckley, Rita Moreno, Eddie Falco and Bobby Cannavale. Honorable mention goes to the character Adebisi because I loved the stylish little caps he wore perched atop his shaved head. This was HBO's first drama, airing a few years before The Sopranos (premiered in 1999) and The Wire (2002). Oz aired through February 2003 so there was some overlap with these other two series. Although HBO now regularly receives more Emmy nods than the broadcast networks, honors were few for Oz.
Nearly 26 years to the date after Oz's debut (on July 11, 2013 ), women would get their due when the acclaimed prison drama Orange is the New Black debuted on Netflix.