There’s no place like Oz. No place on TV, at least. Oz is the nickname of the fictional Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary, the setting for the harrowing HBO drama penned by Homicide: Life on the Street‘s Tom Fontana. What sets Oz apart is its take-no-prisoners attitude. In last summer’s cliff-hanger, the inmates rioted, and the violence was aptly disturbing; even the kindly priest (M. Butterfly‘s B.D. Wong) got the bejesus beaten out of him.
The second season premiere picks up the plotline as the prison has been retaken by force, resulting in the deaths of six inmates and two officers. The man who ordered the assault, Zeljko Ivanek’s sleazy Governor Devlin (as in the devil incarnate), appoints a commission to investigate the uprising. In an inspired bit of casting, Roc‘s Charles S. Dutton (who served time for manslaughter before attending Yale School of Drama) plays Alvah Case, the law-school dean who heads up the probe.
As Case questions the prison’s staff and population, viewers are reintroduced to Oz’s rich ensemble. Tim McManus (thirtysomething‘s Terry Kinney) oversees Emerald City, the experimental unit designed to give the inmates greater freedom. But he’s far from just a bleeding heart. He’s also got a severe martyr complex (he traded himself for injured hostages during the riot) and a raging libido, having hit on the prison’s doctor (New York Undercover‘s lovely Lauren Velez) and bedded guard Diane Wittlesey (Edie Falco, who has created one of the most unglamorously real women ever seen in a TV drama series).
The prisoners are a no less riveting bunch. Harvard-educated lawyer Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), who was convicted of killing a girl while driving drunk, descends deeper into madness. Last season, the degradations of prison life drove him to defecate on the face of his neo-Nazi cell mate, Vern Schillinger (the chilling J.K. Simmons). When his new cell mate forces him to perform a sex act, Beecher retaliates in a manner that suggests he could be the love child of Mike Tyson and Lorena Bobbitt.
Shocked? You should be. Oz obliterates taboos, but it doesn’t traffic in South Park-style cheap thrills. Its jolts are genuine, and it breaks new TV ground every week. In this season’s second episode, one of the male inmates discovers that he’s developed breast cancer, and the anguished complexity of his reaction makes the simplistic pluckiness of fellow victim Murphy Brown ring all the more hollow.
Just as HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show reinvented the sitcom, Oz has transformed the TV drama. There are no heroes among its more than 20 characters: Even Ernie Hudson’s seemingly decent warden, Leo Glynn, takes revenge on a random Latino inmate, Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo), after Glynn’s daughter is raped by an Hispanic gang.
And like Larry Sanders, Oz deserves serious Emmy attention, for best drama series as well as for writing, directing (episodes have been shot by such maverick filmmakers as I Like It Like That‘s Darnell Martin and illtown‘s Nick Gomez), and acting. In addition to many of the aforementioned cast members, worthy nominees include Eamonn Walker, who oozes charisma as incarcerated Muslim leader Kareem Said, and Dean Winters as Ryan O’Reilly, an Irish-American inmate who survives by playing the various ethnic groups off each other (“I’m like the Lord of the f—-in’ Dance,” he explains. “I got moves”).
While each episode of Oz explores a serious issue (drugs, capital punishment), Fontana resists the temptation to preach. He doesn’t offer solutions to the nation’s prison problem. He merely presents it and respects viewers enough to let them draw their own conclusions. In his scripts for Oz, Homicide, and the 1982-88 medical drama St. Elsewhere, Fontana has examined three major American institutions—a correctional facility, a police department, and a hospital. He’s the TV-drama equivalent of Frederick Wiseman, the documentarian who has devoted his career to clear-eyed, cinema verite portraits of such subjects as the Kansas City police department (Law and Order) and a Massachusetts mental hospital (Titicut Follies).
Wiseman’s films aren’t always easy to watch, and neither is Oz. If you’re looking for light summer entertainment, search elsewhere. But you won’t find anything more invigoratingly original on TV. A