Credits + Pics

Buyer's Guide

Lee Links

Ask Lee

Site Info



Raw wizardry of 'Oz' ending

The gritty prison drama paved the way for other groundbreaking shows

By Matthew Gilbert
The Boston Globe
Feb. 23, 2003

When prisoners misbehave at Oswald State Penitentiary, also known as Oz, they're thrown into the Hole. A windowless cell containing only a wooden bucket for human waste, the Hole is Oz's core of existential horror, its cement portal to loneliness and emptiness. It's where bad men are sent to choke on their own anger, to be quieted by darkness. It's where the animal is tamed.

And the Hole, so stark and symbolic, is one of the many reasons I've been a huge fan of "Oz," which ends its six-season run at 9 tonight. Yes, HBO's prison drama is fueled by shower-room shankings, an Aryan cult, and grotesqueries such as the excretion cocktail mixed by one Hole-bound inmate. Most viewers have turned away from the show's in-your-face imagery in disgust, including the Emmy voters, who consistently ignore stunning acting by Eamonn Walker, Christopher Meloni, Rita Moreno, Dean Winters, Lee Tergesen and J.K. Simmons. "Oz," so feral and explosive, is the black sheep of quality television.

But who said art had to be pretty or that the road to human understanding was paved with yellow bricks?

"Oz" will go down in history as one of TV's purest dramas ever, a bold portrait of the human condition in the raw. It is drama stripped to its barest essentials, from the minimalist set design and costuming to the terse, explicit dialogue. It's a naked version of the same tensions that are clothed in colorful New Jersey mob regalia for "The Sopranos," especially when it comes to the power plays by which one inmate is made into another's "bitch." And it contains the same cutthroat maneuvering of "Survivor" but without the picture-postcard settings or million-dollar payoffs. "Oz" is human conflict unadorned, as shorn of excess as its one-syllable title.

The show looks like a laboratory built to conduct psychological studies. Through the glass walls of Oz's Emerald City unit, as if through a microscope, we can see the forces of hatred wrestle with the forces of redemption. Neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger makes newcomers parade in women's clothing, but then Sister Pete fosters forgiveness through her therapy sessions. Ryan O'Reily has Dr. Nathan's husband killed, but then she chooses to heal even those who have harmed her. Corrupt guards permit murders for a few bucks, but then Em City head Tim McManus plays camp counselor, the Jeff Probst of lockdown. For every short-tempered Miguel Alvarez, there is a patient teacher such as Suzanne Fitzgerald or Stella Coffa, fostering self-respect through literature and theater.

It's as if this prison tug of war between primal behavior and moral intervention is occurring within a single consciousness, as if all of Oz represents the constant feuding among the id, ego and superego in one individual. But "Oz" is a microcosm of American society, too, as prisoners from every class and ethnicity live on top of one another in claustrophobic pressure. It's a melting pot that threatens to boil over, and often does, as Muslims, white supremacists, Italians, Latinos, elder statesmen and black street kids compete for limited turf. Despite the Band-Aids of faith and art, the troubles never go away, and they result in as many deaths as a Shakespearean tragedy.

Indeed, "Oz" has a strong theatrical quality to it, and not just because its plotlines, particularly those involving O'Reily, are often rooted in plays such as "Hamlet." The "Oz" cast members take risks we don't usually see on TV, where actors tend to be cautious about how the public will receive them. They engage in experimental-theater-style moves that are TV-celebrity taboos, such as full-frontal nudity, gratuitously cruel behavior, and gay sex. The tortured love affair between Tergesen's Tobias Beecher and Meloni's Chris Keller has been an unusually daring venture for two actors trying to make it in the mainstream (Meloni is also the star of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"). And the performances stand out against the gray monotony of the low-tech prison sets and the simplicity of the props. Indeed, it's usually clear that the action is taking place on a soundstage, and the designers never try to convince us otherwise.

Sometimes - OK, frequently - "Oz" is heavy-handed in its desire to be more than entertainment, particularly when the narrator, Augustus Hill, rants about social ills directly to the camera. But to be an "Oz" fan is to love the show's Big Themes despite their obviousness, and to forgive its eager intensity as you would forgive a brilliant but unrefined young poet. "Oz," created by "Homicide" producer Tom Fontana, has been nothing if not ambitious, and it takes on deeper issues in one episode than an entire season of, say, "Judging Amy."

"Oz" was HBO's first hour-long drama, and its editing style set an example for HBO's best series, "The Sopranos." That means it doesn't contain much fat or redundancy; it also means the writers tend to be sloppy when it comes to managing the story lines and bringing them to a satisfying denouement. Awkward plotting is abundantly evident in tonight's 100-minute finale, a disappointing attempt to tie up six years of loose strings and then add an ironic twist or two. The resolution of mysteries such as the disappearance of Luke Perry's Jeremiah Cloutier are embarrassingly illogical, and longtime characters such as McManus and Beecher the resident Everyman aren't given their due. It's an insufficient ending to a show too steeped in the never- ending human struggle. Maybe that's just as it should be.


Oz main page