Arts & Culture

TV’s top prison dramas raised the bars

J.K. Simmons in ‘Oz’
J.K. Simmons in ‘Oz’ HBO

Jail: Big Texas is far from the first time incarceration has been the topic of a TV series. In fact, one of the most acclaimed shows on Netflix at the moment is set in a women’s facility.

So lock yourself in a room, and sentence yourself to binge-watching these six TV prison dramas.


1. Oz (1997-2003): Set in a fictional maximum-security facility for men, HBO’s first hour-long dramatic series was like a shank to the gut every week. It dealt with controversial subject matter and featured a stellar ensemble cast that included such veterans as B.D. Wong, Rita Moreno, Edie Falco and Betty Buckley as well as such newer faces as Christopher Meloni and a menacing J.K. Simmons who would go on to become household names. (And you thought Simmons was scary in Whiplash.) Though it doesn’t get the widespread respect of, say, The Sopranos, it was a groundbreaker in terms of appointment TV for adults.

2. Orange Is the New Black (2013-present): This Emmy-winning series, focusing on a women’s prison, helped make Netflix a powerhouse for original programming. Mixing humor and drama, it cuts across boundaries of race and sexuality. Its fourth season was released for streaming in June and it’s been renewed for three more seasons.

3. Prison Break (2005-2009): The popular series about a man put on death row for a crime he didn’t commit and his brother who hatches a plan to get him out proved to be addictive. A special bonus for North Texas viewers: It was shot all around Dallas. Unfortunately, the upcoming Prison Break: Sequel, a nine-episode “event series” set for late 2016 or early 2017, was filmed in Vancouver.

4. Prisoner: Cell Block H (1979-1986) and Wentworth (2012-present): Long before Orange Is the New Black, there was the campy Aussie soap Prisoner: Cell Block H, set inside the walls of a women’s prison called Wentworth. Syndicated in the U.S. in some markets in the early ’80s, it has developed a cult following over the years. DVDs are available through Netflix. In 2012, a serious-minded “re-imagining” called Wentworth — with all of the drama and none of the camp — hit the airwaves in Australia and is available for streaming in the U.S. through Netflix.

5. Lock Up (2000-2016): Turn on MSNBC on any random weekend afternoon and there’s a chance you won’t see political discussions but this long-running documentary series about life behind bars. It has spawned its own franchise with such titles as Lock Up: Raw, Lock Up: Extended Stay, Lock Up: Special Investigation, Life After Lock Up, and Lock Up: World Tour (not to be confused with Locked Up Abroad, a similar series from a different production company). This will soon change though as Lock Up’s current season — its 25th — is its last. However, producer Rasha Drachkovitch is hopeful the series can continue in other digital or virtual-reality formats.

6. The Prisoner (1967): This British series about a former secret agent (played by Patrick McGoohan) who finds himself captive in a strange, surreal village was wildly inventive for its time. Blending spy thriller with sci-fi and fantasy, it didn’t follow the predictable TV norms of the era. An update, starring Jim Caviezel, was produced for AMC in 2009.