10 Shows Like 'Oz' to Watch Next

From 'Homicide: Life on the Street' to 'Orange Is The New Black,' these crime shows bring the drama.
by Allison Bowsher — 



HBO may now be known for its cutting-edge TV dramas that pack no shortage of nudity, violence, coarse language, and often disturbing subject matter, but in the mid-1990s, the Home Box Office was a place strictly for movies. That changed 25 years ago with the premiere of the shocking and gritty Oz (Metascore: 70) on July 12, 1997. The first one-hour drama to debut on HBO, Oz set the tone for a network that refuses to be constricted by the regulations imposed on its broadcast counterparts.

Created by Tom Fontana (that's Fontana's arm receiving a tattoo in the opening credits of the show, a writer and producer whose previous credits included Homicide: Life On The Street and St. Elsewhere, the series is set inside the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility, nicknamed Oz. Over six seasons, the lives of the men incarcerated in the maximum-security prison, as well as the stories of those working inside the building, are told with an unflinching and unguarded gaze. Oz was groundbreaking in several aspects, not only for its violent and distressing storylines, but also for its previously unseen depiction of men as sexual assault victims, racial tensions between rival gangs, disabilities, and relationships among gay prisoners.

The characters in Oz were brought to life by an impressive cast that included a mix of film vets and newcomers, including Ernie HudsonTerry KinneyRita MorenoEdie FalcoJ.K. SimmonsLee TergesenDean WintersAdewale Akinnuoye-AgbajeEamonn Walker and Harold Perrineau, whose character Augustus Hill acts as narrator and guide for the viewer.

To celebrate Oz's 25th anniversary, here are 10 shows that follow in its footsteps (and one that predated it) when it comes to character-driven crime drama, listed by Metascore.


'Homicide: Life on the Street'


Homicide: Life on the Street

Metascore: 95
Best for: Fans of classic TV shows that set the standard for small-screen dramas
Where to watch: 

Seasons: 7

Unfortunately, Homicide: Life on the Street continues to be left out of the streaming renaissance that has helped several shows enjoy a second life with a new audience. Still, the series, which can be purchased from Amazon, is worth dusting off your DVD player for and either revisiting or watching for the first time (look at that Metascore!). Set in Baltimore, Md., the police drama was written and produced by Fontana and stars Andre BraugherRichard BelzerClark Johnson, and Melissa Leo, among others. The show that follows homicide detectives and some pretty gruesome murder cases was inspired by David Simon's nonfiction book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. It made history with its three Peabody Awards and its "Prison Riot" episode, which likely laid the groundwork for Fontana's future prison-centric creation, holds a place on TV Guide's Best TV Episodes Ever.

"A cops-and-crime hour reeking of atmosphere, wit and intelligence, an invigorating, essentially nonviolent series about homicide detectives that could be the "Hill Street Blues" of the '90s." — Howard Rosenberg, Los Angeles Times


'The Sopranos'


The Sopranos

Metascore: 94
Best for: Viewers who enjoy antiheroes, a lot of violence, and deep character arcs
Where to watch: 

Seasons: 6

Dramatic TV series don't get much better than The Sopranos (also look at that Metascore!). Unlike Oz, which focuses on people who have landed in prison, The Sopranos follows New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his family as they commit acts that should result in prison time (a lot of prison time), yet they manage to operate outside of the law. Like OzThe Sopranos features increased character development and gripping, gritty storylines packed with no shortage of violence. Both series also star the consistently-excellent Falco, (two Golden Globes, four Emmys, four Screen Actors Guild Awards, an AFI Award, and a Tony nomination don't lie) who shows her range as Tony's conflicted wife Carmela Soprano, a very different role from sympathetic correctional officer Diane Whittlesey on Oz.

"This is sophisticated television that assumes there is an intelligent audience for well-written, off-center, ambitious entertainment. David Chase has created a contemporary mob masterpiece." — Mike Duffy, Detroit Free Press


'The Wire'


The Wire

Metascore: 91
Best for: Fans of dramatized social and political series based in real-life settings
Where to watch: 

Seasons: 5

Fans of Oz will likely find a new favorite show in HBO's critically acclaimed drama The Wire, which, like Fontana's Homicide, is also set in Baltimore, with Simon serving as creator. Splitting screen time between members of law enforcement and those making their living through illegal means, the series shares several of the same actors as Oz, including J.D. WilliamsMethod ManWood Harris, and Domenick Lombardozzi. Whereas Oz focuses on the story of prisoners after they've been incarcerated, The Wire does a deep dive into how the social justice system routinely fails those most at risk, leaving them with few options besides a life of crime.

"The dialogue is sharply funny and richly colloquial, and the actors are a constant astonishment." — Cliff Froehlich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch


'The Night Of'


The Night Of

Metascore: 90
Best for: Fans of dark dramas with a stellar cast
Where to watch: 

Seasons: 1

Based on the BBC's Criminal Justice, HBO's 2016 miniseries The Night Of is a dark and intense drama that follows the case of college student Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed), who spends a night with a young woman (played by Sofia Black-D'Elia) and wakes up next to her dead body with no recollection of how she died. Naz is placed in the infamous Rikers Island, where he commits unthinkable acts of violence to survive. Ahmed won an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie Emmy for his performance, but the must-see cast also includes John TurturroBill Camp, and Michael K. Williams, who all earned Emmy nominations for their roles.

"As complicated and layered as life itself, The Night Of is an instant classic." — Matt Roush, TV Guide Magazine


'Orange Is the New Black'


Orange Is The New Black

Metascore: 80
Best for: Fans of dramedies with a diverse cast
Where to watch: 

Google PlayiTunesNetflix
Seasons: 7

Based on Piper Kerman's bestselling memoir of the same title, Orange Is the New Black opens as a show about a middle-class white woman being sentenced to a year in federal prison and expands ten-fold to tell layered and important stories about women from across America and beyond who find themselves serving time for a multitude of reasons. Their lives pre- and post-incarceration and their friendships behind bars come together to create an emotional and inspiring series that won four Emmys. Orange Is The New Black was also praised for shining a light on social and political issues in the U.S., covering everything from racism and classism, to sexism, immigration, and the #MeToo movement.

"Orange Is the New Black has introduced a multitude of characters we don't usually see on television and given them complicated and intimate relationships that speak volumes about issues not contained to prison's impenetrable walls." — Bethonie Butler, The Washington Post


'Escape at Dannemora'


Escape at Dannemora

Metascore: 78
Best for: Viewers who want to see to see a dramatized version of a real-life thriller that gripped the nation
Where to watch: 

Seasons: 1

Prisoners often try and are sometimes successful at escaping from the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility in OzEscape at Dannemora, is dramatizes the real-life 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape. Executive producer and director Ben Stiller leads the charge, while Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano play convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, respectively, and Patricia Arquette, who won a Golden Globe, Critic's Choice, and SAG Award for her performance, plays prison worker Joyce Mitchell, who aided the pair's escape. The story of the trio's relationship and what happened while Matt and Sweat were on the run is recreated in the critically acclaimed miniseries, which follows the manhunt that lasted almost three weeks and cost taxpayers about $23 million.

"A transformative work that so vividly brings the drama to life it might as well be brand-new to its audience." — Kelly Lawler, USA Today


'Sons of Anarchy'


Sons of Anarchy

Metascore: 75
Best for: Biker fans and viewers who want to feel better about their own strained family dynamics
Where to watch: 

Seasons: 7

While Sons of Anarchy didn't take place solely in a prison, the show makes several visits to Oz-like penitentiaries over the years as members of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club are incarcerated for various offenses. Decisions by gang members inside prison, including alliances made and broken, affect other members on the outside. Like OzSons of Anarchy includes clashes by rival gangs, violent subject matter, and an impressive cast that includes Charlie HunnamKatey SagalRon PerlmanDrea de Matteo, and Jimmy Smits.

"If every drama series had a tenth as much passion, TV would be a far more interesting place." — Matt Zoller Seitz, Salon


'Law and Order: Special Victims Unit'


Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Metascore: 66
Best for: Fans of true crime-inspired police shows with plenty of cameos
Where to watch: 

Seasons: 23 (so far)

Tired of getting into a series only to find out there are only a handful of seasons? Fear not with the long-running Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which is still going strong in its third decade. The series is anchored by Mariska Hargitay as Captain Olivia Benson, who along with her team at the NYPD is charged with helping victims of sexual assault. The Law & Order spin-off is known for taking inspiration from real-life crime stories and featuring an ever-evolving laundry list of guest appearances by actors both before and after they were famous. Several Oz actors, including B.D. Wong, Winters, and Christopher Meloni, who recently launched his own Law and Order spin-off after leaving this series in Season 12, have all starred on SVU.

"The cast is first rate, delivering sympathetic and believable performances. The writing is intelligent, providing intellectual grist to the grisly moments. And the direction is as crisp as it is clever." — Mark Dawidziak, The Plain Dealer


'For Life'

ABC Signature

For Life

Metascore: 64
Best for: Fans of dramas based on real-life inspiring change-makers
Where to watch: 

Seasons: 2

For Life is based on the incredible true story of Isaac Wright Jr., a man falsely imprisoned as a drug kingpin in New Jersey and sentenced to life in prison. While incarcerated, Wright Jr. studied his case and legal books and successfully argued in court to have his sentence vacated, while also securing the release of others who had been falsely imprisoned. Nicholas Pinnock stars as Aaron Wallace, a character based on Wright Jr., Joy Bryant stars as Wallace's wife, and 50 Cent, who also executive produces the series, plays a troublesome inmate.

"Easily watchable and enjoyable. But in a world with so many TV options, it's nice to get more than just comfort food from broadcast TV." — Kelly Lawler, USA Today


'Prison Break'

20th Century Fox

Prison Break

Metascore: 59
Best for: Fans of dramatized prison shows that focus on entertainment over facts
Where to watch: 

Seasons: 5

When Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) is sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit, his brother Michael (Wentworth Miller) tattoos himself with the blueprint of the prison where Lincoln is being held and gets himself arrested. Together, the pair plan their escape, but trouble follows the family members throughout the series, even after the show manages to evolve past the pair's initial escape.

"Prison Break has the dark social hierarchies of Oz and the clever inventions of Escape From Alcatraz." — Gillian Flynn, Entertainment Weekly