The Wizards of
New Orleans Times-Picayune (TV Focus)
July 11, 1999
City -- "Oz" is about survival. So it's only fitting that HBO's raw
prison drama would turn out to be such an improbable series
"When we were shooting the first eight episodes," series creator Tom
Fontana said, "we were all having a great time, we were all feeling
good about the
work, and we were all convinced nobody would watch it. HBO had lost
their minds along with us, and this was going to doom us all and put
an end to our careers."
That hasn't happened, but not for a lack of trying. It would be
irresponsible to be glib about the adult content on "Oz," a drama so
intense even diehard
fans dare not recommend it to anyone they don't know very well. This
is intense, graphic stuff, a stylized but unflinching peek inside a
security prison. Always profane and often frighteningly frank, "Oz"
-- short for Oswald State Correctional Facility -- is totally off
limits for pre-teens and potentially traumatizing for delicate
But for the difficult to offend, it is extraordinary television, an
almost perversely compelling fulfillment of the medium's grandest
promise: the ability to take viewers places they might never
"I think the audience who watches the show gets what I'm trying to
do and isn't afraid of it," Fontana said during a break in shooting
at the show's expansive set inside -- get this -- the old Nabisco
cookie factory here. "The remarkable thing for me, more than any
other show I've worked on, this show people either love or they
hate. There's no, 'Yeah, I saw one and I kind of liked it.' There's
no 'kinda' in any sense related to Oz. It's very extreme. People
either love it or they go, 'Oh, no. I watched one of those and I'm
never going back there.'"
And who could blame them? It's the entertainment equivalent of
spending an hour a week on death row. The series began in the summer
of '97 with an episode that depicted a white supremacist branding
his cellmate with a swastika. Last summer's season premiere featured
that same con exacting revenge on his bunkmate's latest attempt to
That episode was called "The Tip," and as remarkable as Fontana's
decision to depict the violation and its violent aftermath was the
lack of controversy surrounding it. The content cops in Congress
apparently have concluded that anyone who pays for HBO deserves what
he gets, while HBO subscribers have concluded that anyone who
returns to "Oz" deserves what he gets.
No wonder that Lee Tergesen, who plays the branded inmate Beecher,
described the first reading of each new script as "for me, the worst
"It's like finding out you're terminally ill," he said, relaxing on
a production office sofa while cast and crew broke for lunch. "At
first you're rocked, and then you come to terms with it, and then
you sort of do what you have to do."
What Beecher does has always been of primary interest to "Oz"
watchers, who experience prison through him, a regular, middle-class
guy who got a life sentence for getting drunk and running his car
into a little girl.
"A guy who had a life," Tergesen said of his character, "A wife and
children, everything was set up. And then he loses it all in this
horrible sort of accident where he gets put in this place he
shouldn't be. Oz is exactly where he should not be. And what does it
take for him to survive in a world he has no skills for?"
What it has taken, slowly but surely, is for Beecher to go
completely nuts. In two seasons, he's gone from victim to tormentor,
making his share of enemies along the way -- one of whom beat him to
a bloody pulp in last summer's season finale.
"It's just broken bones," he says with a devilish chuckle.
"Superficial wounds here at Oz."
In Wednesday's season premiere, "I come back with a plan. I come
back with vengeance on my mind. When I first came in, it was sort
of, 'Wow, he doesn't belong here. He killed someone, but it was
accidental.' After the second season, people still have hope for
him. They think he's going to come out with some kind of redemption.
Those thoughts are academic after this episode. Nobody's going to be
thinking like that anymore."
Tergesen admits to having given up trying to figure out how people
will react to "Oz." He confesses to asking himself while shooting
the first season's episodes, "What am I doing to myself here?" But
now he believes that for HBO it's kind of must-keep TV.
"They're not making any money on this," he surmised. "But they like
being associated with something like this. It sets them apart."
Oz main page