Tom Fontana redefines television -- HBO's ''Oz'' and NBC's ''Homicide: Life on the Street'' keep viewers coming back

Dismemberment, crucifixion, impalement, rape…now, that’s entertainment! Or so it was for eight gloriously grotesque hours last summer as season 2 of Tom Fontana’s HBO series, Oz, really gave us something to sweat about.

Emerald City, Oswald Penitentiary’s segregated experimental unit, was, much like its cinematic allusion, a universe unto itself. But if Judy Garland’s fever-dreamed never-never land was a foray into heavenly bliss, Fontana’s creation was a perverse, horrific journey in the other direction, and no amount of heel clicking was gonna bring you back.

What it did bring viewers back to was the proverbial watercooler. Each Tuesday morning we gathered, struck dumb by that week’s Machiavellian intrigue, eagerly anticipating what the next Monday would bring: Would Milquetoasty ”punk” Beecher finally go medieval on his Nazi tormentor, Schillinger? Who would be the next target of Ryan O’Reilly’s lone-wolf savagery? And what the hell was Adebisi keeping under that precariously perched hat?

Yet while Oz was surely the most testosterone-infused series on the air, its enmeshed plot arcs, the ever-shifting loyalties and balances of power among its inmates, and their ingrained amorality suggested nothing less than a daytime soap — an analogy the 47-year-old Fontana wholeheartedly endorses: ”It’s a heightened world, but a reflection of the world we live in. It’s real and yet it’s unreal.”

Oz‘s brilliantly realized milieu, in which the horrendous is made mundane (and vice versa), is a vision Fontana has honed for seven seasons as executive producer of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street: From the explosive coda to the Baltimore squad’s watershed battle with drug lord Luther Mahoney (Erik Todd Dellums), to the profoundly stately departure of longtime star Andre Braugher (who finally scored a best actor Emmy), last season’s Homicide offered a package of compellingly crafted crime stories. Perhaps most gripping of all: the Peabody award-winning ”The Subway,” a white-knuckled masterpiece featuring a luckless commuter (Vincent D’Onofrio) trapped beneath a subway car, his freedom attainable only at the cost of his life — a Fontana-esque conundrum if ever there was one.

Recalling the show’s genesis, Fontana provides a telling glimpse into his own adventurous bent: Homicide executive producer Barry Levinson ”wanted a show about thinking cops with no car chases and no gun battles. I thought, This man is completely insane — so I guess I have to go do it with him.” That coffee-and-doughnuts take on the police drama allows for a apt intimacy between actor and viewer. Interludes that on other cop shows would be quirky digressions — darkly comic banter on the heartbreak of ”scrotal drop” or arcane government conspiracies — are very much the meat of the matter. The quotidian is the point.

In both series, Fontana’s art derives from choices that defy TV convention. ”I have to put challenges down for myself,” he says, ”because God knows the medium doesn’t expect you to challenge yourself. It asks you not to.” Ignoring the temptations of the star system and the shift toward flashy atmospherics, he opts for democratic ensembles, viscerally satisfying scripts, and fly-on-the-wall visual clarity. With nary a shadow or misty-aired mise-en-scéne to be found, it’s life from under the glare of fluorescent light — and a beacon of true, unpretentious inspiration.

Homicide: Life on the Street
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