By Bruce Fretts
Jan. 13, 2003
When last we left the
Oswald State Correctional Facility, paraplegic prisoner Augustus
Hill (Harold Perrineau) had been accidentally stabbed in the stomach
and lay bleeding to death on the floor. If you don't want to know
his fate, I'd suggest you skip the next two paragraphs. And if you
can't stomach graphic violence, gutter language, and full-frontal
convict nudity, I'd suggest you skip ''Oz.''
Now that we've weeded out the whiners and wimps, here's the dope: As
HBO's first original drama series enters its final season, I'm sad
to report that Hill is dead -- but glad to report that he's still
got plenty of life left in him, as does ''Oz.'' In an inspired twist
worthy of the cable net's ''Six Feet Under,'' Hill reprises his role
as the show's narrator, only from beyond the grave (hence the
opener's wickedly witty title, ''Dead Man Talking''). The device
also allows ''Oz'' creator Tom Fontana to bring back other deceased
cons as guest commentators, including first-season fatalities
Jefferson Keane (''Cool Runnings''' Leon) and Dino Ortolani
(''Homicide: Life on the Street'''s Jon Seda), and hanged
child-killer Shirley Bellinger (''Law & Order: Criminal Intent'''s
Kathryn Erbe), who's even more chilling with visible rope burns
around her neck.
The institution's shockingly high mortality rate might strike some
as unrealistic, but ''Oz'' left the realm of realism long ago and
became something more akin to a reality show -- ''Survivor: Maximum
Security.'' You know somebody's going to get voted out of the pen
(and off the planet) every week, yet you still get a sick thrill
watching the psychodynamic struggle that leads up to their ejection.
At the same time, Fontana has slyly pulled a page out of Dick Wolf's
''Law & Order'' playbook, ripping more story lines from real life.
''Oz'''s most powerful new resident, Mayor Wilson Loewen (Tom
Atkins), seems loosely based on former York, Pa., mayor Charlie
Robertson, who was recently acquitted in the killing of an
African-American woman during a 1969 race riot. Loewen is convicted
of abetting the KKK in a civil-rights-era murder case, and the
prospect of his pardon by the fiendish Gov. James Devlin (''24'''s
Zeljko Ivanek) incites an uprising in the series' unnamed city.
Other hot buttons provocatively pushed this season include the
Catholic Church sex scandals (B.D. Wong's Father Ray Mukada is
accused of abuse); the execution of mentally retarded adults (Dean
Winters' Ryan O'Reily races to save his brain-damaged brother,
Cyril, played by real-life sib Scott William Winters, from
electrocution); and the use of prison labor for sub-minimum-wage
telemarketing jobs, which surely constitutes cruel and unusual
And in a case of art imitating life imitating art, ''Oz'''s inmates
stage a production of ''Macbeth'' (a la the recent Elizabethan play
performed at Sing Sing). As in Shakespeare's day, men take both the
male and female parts -- a darkly clever echo of the big house's
bulls-and-bitches power structure. The show is directed by the
bedraggled music teacher, Suzanne Fitzgerald, who's played without a
whiff of vanity by ''Cats'' Tony winner Betty Buckley.
And she's not ''Oz'''s only ego-free Broadway diva. Rita Moreno
blessedly returns to her role as activist nun/psychologist Sister
Peter Marie Reimondo, and Patti LuPone (''Evita'') joins the cast as
Stella Coffo, the new head librarian, who engages in a charming
flirtation with hangdog lifer Bob Rebadow (George Morfogen). Plus,
later this season, ''Cabaret'' emcee Joel Grey cameos as a surprise
visitor to Muslim minister Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker). With this
lineup, the joint could put on a hell of a talent show.
Yet the jail's real breakout stars remain Lee Tergesen and J.K.
Simmons as Tobias Beecher and Vern Schillinger. The Itchy and
Scratchy of ''Oz,'' white-collar criminal Beecher and white
supremacist Schillinger have inflicted so much emotional and
physical torture on each other over five seasons that you'd think
they'd run out of fresh atrocities to commit. When Schillinger's
released from solitary on the eve of Beecher's parole hearing,
however, you know they're destined to continue their nasty dance for
at least one more twirl.
Even if he's sprung, Beecher will almost certainly be back, if only
to visit the love of his prison life, condemned serial killer Chris
Keller (''Law & Order: Special Victims Unit'''s Christopher Meloni).
Theirs is one of the most rivetingly twisted romances, gay or
straight, ever seen on TV. Like Michael Corleone in ''The Godfather
Part III,'' every time Beecher thinks he's out, ''Oz'' pulls him
back in. For the show's die-hard fans, that's a pleasingly familiar
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