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''Oz'' returns to the air as violent as ever

Creator Tom Fontana tells EW Online where he gets his ideas and why he rejects happy endings

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J.K. Simmons
Eric Liebowitz/HBO

Tom Fontana, creator of ”Oz,” makes it clear in the third-season premiere of his dark and graphic prison drama (Wednesday at 10 p.m., on HBO) that he hasn’t run out of creative ways to have his inmates and guards beat the hell out of each other. In the past two seasons he’s had burnings, stabbings, and rapes, not to mention an honest-to-goodness crucifixion, but this week he outdoes himself with a brutally inspired attack that frighteningly demonstrates what a good manicure can do.

Fontana did two years of jailhouse research before the show first premiered in 1997, and many of these assaults were inspired by his conversations with convicts and officers. ”I haven’t done anybody’s story (specifically),” he tells EW Online. ”But when somebody says to you, ‘I killed this guy by putting broken glass in his food,’ you go, ‘I’m gonna write that down.’ I don’t want to hear the details, I just need to know ‘Broken glass in food… person dies.”’ (Mob boss Nino Schibetta was on that lethal diet in the premiere season.) Fontana has his reasons for not following the prisoners’ war stories to the letter. ”I didn’t want to exploit the convicts,” he says. ”Also, I didn’t want them to come after me when they got out.”

Its violence — as well as the omnipresent profanity and nudity — aren’t the only reasons that ”Oz” is locked out of network television: The inmates hardly ever undergo the nightly redemption that is the norm for prime-time television. Their violent habits rarely ebb, and in fact those habits are necessary for the prisoners’ survival; progress toward rehabilitation is uncommon and barely perceptible. (In the premiere episode, the drug-crazed and hyperviolent Adebisi seems to have undergone a goodhearted conversion after his stay in a mental hospital, but there are intonations that it will be short-lived.) That’s all part of Fontana’s anti-tidy-ending campaign that he also waged as executive producer of the late lamented ”Homicide.”

”Life isn’t that neat,” he says. ”To me, what’s noble is the struggle and less so the victory. If you say, for example, ‘AIDS is a terrible thing,’ but after an hour-long episode a character comes to accept it, you trivialize the incredible journey that somebody who has AIDS goes through by making the victory so easily won in 45 minutes. You have to let an issue live its own course and see where it ends up, which is what I’m doing with ‘Oz.’ There are moments of redemption, but they should be hard won.”