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A grand slammer on HBO 

by David Bianculli
The New York Daily News
Jan. 3, 2003

It predated "The Sopranos," clearing the path and showing the way for HBO to produce daring, groundbreaking episodic drama series. Yet only at the start of its sixth and final season, is "Oz" getting HBO's primest of prime-time slots, Sunday nights at 9.

Like other shows associated with writer-producer Tom Fontana - NBC's "St. Elsewhere" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" - "Oz" has had a tentative TV existence. This drama about life in a maximum-security prison has barely survived year to year.

What makes this final season different is that Fontana and HBO went into it knowing it was going to end, with no chance for appeal, so all bets - like all gloves - are off. Fontana and company are free to shock and challenge, to explore unexpected avenues and, most of all, to put any character in jeopardy at any time.

Fontana is already famous for going all-out and doing the unexpected. With eight episodes per season, he's averaged more than one death per show, and many of the casualties are principal characters. So what is he going to do with eight episodes left, and no need to leave anyone on their feet when the final credits roll?

Stand by, sports fans.

I've seen the first three episodes of this final season. I refuse to spoil any surprises, but I will say this: In the first episode, there is a moment so casually shocking, even by HBO standards, that you'll know it when you see it. In a screening room full of tough-guy actors from "Oz" and "The Sopranos," it elicited a squeamish round of groans and laughs. In the second episode, there's a scene involving cutlery that has nothing to do with shanks for the memories.

And in the third episode, there's one of those "oh wow" moments that you watch television for - the stunning things that you don't see coming, can't forget afterward and recognize instantly as high art and realistic drama.

Fontana, who writes or co-writes every "Oz" episode, has come up with lots of twists for this season of last hurrahs.

The narrations from the glass box, formerly presented by Harold Parrineau, continue, even though his Augustus Hill was one of many who left in a body bag last season. So who's in the box this year? Hill and Kathryn Erbe's Shirley Bellinger, and other "Oz" inmates who have shuffled off this show's mortal coil. In this last season, death isn't final - or at least, it's not an impediment to bringing some fine actors back for one more appearance.

The death rate on "Oz" soars this season, but it's not gratuitous. And of the players who have established themselves on this series, even a short list of the strongest contributors adds up to a dozen. You wouldn't know it from the Emmy nominations, but this show boasts one of the best and deepest acting companies on television.

So, as this last season begins, let's give another nod to Ernie Hudson's tough Leo Glynn, Terry Kinney's resilient Tim McManus, Rita Moreno's Sister Peter Marie, J.K. Simmons' Vern Schillinger and Lee Tergesen's Tobias Beecher, whose blood feud made the HatfieldMcCoy squabble seem petty. Also soaring are Eamonn Walker's intense Muslim leader Kareem Said, who has gained, lost and regained power along the way; Dean Winters and Scott William Winters as Ryan and Cyril O'Reilly, brothers who are cunning and innocent, respectively; Kirk Acevedo's self-destructive Miguel Alvarez, whose survival to this point has defied all odds; Christopher Meloni's Chris Keller, whose every appearance is riveting and a little unsettling; George Morfogen's Bob Rebadow, whose new prison job in the library has brought more than a joy of reading, and B.D. Wong's Father Ray, whose faith continues to be tested in amazing ways.

That's not a mere laundry list. Every performance has been bold, thoughtful and resonant.

"Oz" is one show that's not to be missed. But when its run is over, it will be.


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