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How ''Oz'' hopes to survive ''Survivor''

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Oz
Eric Liebowitz/HBO

To hear TV vet Tom Fontana tell it, staying alive in today’s ”Survivor”-crazed world can be as tough as it is for the convicts in his HBO drama ”Oz.” (Wednesdays, 11 p.m.) Ever since UPN axed his latest cop drama, ”The Beat,” after just six episodes, Fontana has been on the outs with network prez Dean Valentine, whom he loudly blames for not supporting the series. ”I think that a network executive with balls will stick by a show sometimes if he believes it does have a future,” Fontana tells EW Online. (UPN declined to comment.)

Well, at least Fontana doesn’t worry about HBO’s lack of loyalty. From the looks of the first episode of ”Oz”’s fourth season, the cable network has no intention of softening the 48 year old creator’s edgy style. ”It’s like being a beaten child and getting into the right home, and suddenly they’re not beating you anymore,” says Fontana of returning to HBO.

HE may not be getting beaten up anymore, but everyone on his series still is. The first 30 minutes of the debut episode alone includes three of the gloriously wanton acts of violence ”Oz” fans have come to expect: A pencil stabbing lands two inmates in the hospital; a nightmarish boxing match ends in death; and a guard happens upon a ”suicide by mastication” in solitary. (Lacking contraband razors, a desperate convict resorts to his canines.) ”It’s always a busy day in Oz,” says Fontana, ”because there’s got to be at least two murders and three rapes.”

This season is also especially busy in ”Oz” land because the ever innovative Fontana is bringing the series to the Internet. The official ”Oz” site features three scenes shot exclusively for the Web. The segments introduce a new inmate played by ”I Dreamed of Africa”’s Lance Reddick, who will then appear in the summer’s eight HBO episodes. Reddick’s character, Det. John Basil, is an undercover narc assigned to ferret out the drug trade in the prison in the guise of a Jamaican drug dealer named Mobay. Fans who visit the ”Oz” site will be able to receive copies of ”letters” and ”reports” Basil sends in secret, via e-mail, to his wife and boss from behind bars.

Online plot-building may be just the thing to attract audiences away from the gravitational pull of ”Survivor” and this summer’s other reality-based series. Even the grittiest dramas can be threatened by the all-too-real TV trend these days, laments Fontana. ”I’m terrified of [reality shows] because those are hours of television that are taken by reality programming and taken away from guys like me,” he says, adding it’s ”wonderfully ironic that television started with wrestling and game shows and seems to have gone a complete cycle in 50 years.”

While you shouldn’t expect Fontana to abandon his smuggled handguns and handmade shivs to start producing game shows (”Who Wants to Be a Homicide Victim,” anyone?) he WILL be moving into new territory with his next project: a half-hour HBO comedy series for ”Summer of Sam”’s John Leguizamo. The writer who’s built a rep making grisly dramas says his comic foray is the realization of a longtime goal. ”The terrible thing about television is that people get stereotyped,” he says. ”People think of me as a guy who writes these really kind of dark, brooding shows. I want to get ‘gritty’ away from my name. Instead of the ‘Gritty writing of Tom Fontana’ it [should] be the ‘Wacky writing of Tom Fontana.”’

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