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The End of OZ

By Greg Archer
Satellite DIRECT magazine

It’s official—OZ, HBO’s critically acclaimed prison drama, is not up for parole. And the decision has OZ-ies ready to riot.

Who gave TV’s most provocative outing the death penalty? The man who created it.

“With these final eight episodes of OZ, I’ll finish telling the story I originally set out to tell,” says Tom Fontana, the show’s creator and executive producer, whose vision was to end the drama after its sixth season. “I want the series to go out at what I hope will be its top form.”

Fontana doesn’t have to worry about that. Ever since OZ burst onto the scene in 1997, it’s been quite the jaw-dropper and will be remembered as one of the most groundbreaking series to ever hit the airwaves. Brooding men behind bars, prison power struggles, white supremacy, religious wars, full frontal male nudity, homosexuality, murderous and grizzly bloodbaths—life in the experimental unit of “Emerald City” at Oswald State Correctional Facility is anything but tepid.

And those story arcs: the Beecher-Keller love saga; the twisted karma of Miguel Alvarez, a former Latin gang leader-turned-post- suicidal murderous-escapee; the woes of a warden hoping to find out who raped his daughter; the Muslim author who was all for non-violence and abstinence, but whose incarceration somehow led to the burning of a short-tempered Mafia inmate. Even the show’s venerable narrator, the wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), has kept us enthralled.

The bottom line: viewers became “prisoners” of OZ, both captivated by its pulsating plots and in awe of how its characters cope with “jail time” and life within the confines of their own emotional prisons. OZ also boasts one of the largest casts on television—Rita Moreno as the challenged-yet-patient Sister Peter Marie stands out—and a slew of celebrity directors including Matt Dillon. Still, with all its critical acclaim, it has yet to be nominated for a single award.

“It was the first cable series to head into the land that TV has avoided and movies shied away from, “ says Terry Kinney, who plays beleaguered “Em City” administrator Tim McManus. “The fact that we had all of the growing pains and little of the praise was always strange to me. Certainly, the award shows avoided us. Was it our quality of work? No. So what was it?”

Guts. Before OZ, no other show dared to feature such gritty, realistic plots—the graphic violence alone created the biggest buzz. But without OZ fertilizing the TV soil, how could there have been Queer As Folk, Six Feet Under or The Sopranos?

“It’s easy to dismiss OZ as ‘that prison rape show,’” says Dean Winters (OZ’s Ryan O’Reily), who plays an imprisoned sibling alongside his real-life brother, Scott. “But people who ‘get it’ understand that the writing is pristine and truthful.We’re not selling beer and chips, so we can show the truth.”

For Lee Tergesen, whose character, Tobias Beecher, went from devoted father to conflicted inmate sentenced to 15 years on a vehicular manslaughter charge, OZ covered a lot of territory and mesmerized with its “big ideas about what people are to each other, and what we as human beings do—because we think we have to—in order to survive.”

While Fontana’s pen mastered every one of OZ’s storylines —and all those envelope-pushing moments—he hit a new plateau in television by scripting the love relationship between Tergesen’s Beecher and convicted murderer/fellow inmate Chris Keller, played by Chris Meloni (Law and Order: SVU). For the first time on television, an hour-long drama featured every nuance of a love affair between two men.

“In Episode six [of the second season], we had the first scene where we had to tell each other that we loved each other and kiss,” Tergesen recalls. “A lot of things on the show, at that point, were bold, [but] I trusted Tom’s writing.”

Still, Tergesen and Meloni met before their scenes were shot and discussed their onscreen relationship. “One actor told me, ‘never kiss a man on screen’—you do have those considerations,” Tergesen notes. “Chris and I decided not to shy away from it—to go toward it. And that’s one of the things people sensed when they watched. They got very involved in that relationship. We were invested in it and we weren’t trying to skirt it. Sometimes you see people acting and they stay separate from what they’re doing because they want you to make sure that this isn’t them.”

How does it all play out in the end? Although cast and crew have zipped lips, Kinney offers this tidbit: there’s “even more conflict than in the previous season, if that’s even possible.

“There’s more Shakespearean plots,” he adds. “It’s a very, very sad and very entertaining bloodbath. It’s the logical conclusion for a show that has more intensity than any show I can remember being involved with. It’s moved up another notch.”

The final season of OZ premieres Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO (ch. 501)

The Merry Old Land of OZ

• OZ Executive Producer Tom Fontana treats every member of his ensemble cast with the same amount of fairness and promotes a “check your ego” policy at the door.

• Most of the show was filmed on an elaborate soundstage in Bayonne, NJ.

• During those oh-so-brutal prison riots, OZ guards used batons to beat unruly prisoners. In reality, the batons were made of rubber. Sometimes, when they escaped an actor’s grip, they fell to floor and bounced back like a rubber ball. It left the cast in stitches.

• The OZ body count: So far, 56 inmates have left “Emerald City” in body bags.

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