Credits + Pics

Buyer's Guide

Lee Links

Ask Lee

Site Info



The Wizards of Oz

By Mark Lorando
New Orleans Times-Picayune (TV Focus)
July 11, 1999

New York 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 survivor.

"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 maximum
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 adults.

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 otherwise go.

"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 rape him.

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 time."

"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