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Oz Review

By Bruce Fretts
Entertainment Weekly
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 punishment.

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 feeling.

Grade: A-


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