Stark realism returns to TV with the advent of yet another season of Tom Fontana's brilliantly chilling saga of the ultimate nightmare, life behind bars
'Prison is on both sides of the bars.' — Muslim leader and OZ inmate # 97S444-Kareem Said, played by Eamonn Walker.
Murder. Mayhem. Rape. Addiction. Unrelenting fear, tension, danger and passion. Unspeakable acts of violence, revenge and retribution in their rawest forms. Love, hope and enlightenment inexplicably intertwined with hate, despair and seething prejudice. Welcome to your worse nightmare. Welcome to Emerald City, an experimental unit within The Oswald State Penitentiary, better known as 'OZ.' Forget about Dorothy, the Good Witch and Toto. It will take a lot more than magic red shoes to rid you of creator Tom Fontana's horrific vision of life inside a maximum-security prison. For this is a very different kind of Emerald City. Kansas might just as well be a million miles away, and there is no Auntie Em to be found, anywhere.
In the society known as 'OZ,' and particularly within the confines of the experimental prison unit known as Emerald City, the only certainties are that absolutely no one is safe, everyone is suspect, and it is a given that no human being who spends any time there (regardless of which side of the bars they are on) will ever be the same. If they survive, that is. For OZ is a place where sudden death, disfigurement, horrifying assault and terrifying variations of mental and physical torture are omnipresent. Honesty rises quickly to the top within the confines of Emerald City. Veneers all but vanish as if by magic. It might be said that OZ has a sinister way of reducing life to its simplest, basest terms in the twinkling of an eye or the flick of a switchblade. But OZ is also a place of revelation, it can even evoke the promise of redemption, but for most of the population residing there, Emerald City is a depository of dashed hopes, isolation, longing, trepidation and dangerous compromise. Many dark secrets are revealed within the walls of OZ, but OZ doesn't merely hold secrets, it also creates them.
With the advent of the HBO original series OZ, the production genius of Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana has given us a story about some of the most desperate, despicable and tragic people imaginable, yet interestingly enough the tenor of the show is such that we actually grow to care about the fate of the people depicted in OZ, when it would be far easier to merely have contempt for them. The unsavory prison population of Emerald City houses, among others, a gay serial killer, a child molesting priest, an arsonist turned anti-violent Muslim, a bisexual attorney, a psychotic skinhead, an evangelical preacher and a junkie basketball player.
But perhaps the most unsettling thing about OZ is what it seemingly represents. Within the scope of Tom Fontana's fictional society behind bars, OZ represents but a microcosm of society. Any society, our society. A population reduced to its most primitive terms, its basest elements. Survival is key, and whatever it takes to achieve that on a daily basis seems a recipe for success in what amounts to an unending nightmare in this 'merryless' land of OZ.
An exceptionally fine ensemble of dynamic and multitalented actors and actresses combine with the creative genius and vision of creator/writer/producer/director Tom Fontana and producer Berry Levinson to produce an HBO original series that is groundbreaking in its unflinchingly raw, graphic and honest portrayal of prison life and its inherent horrors. OZ premiered on HBO in 1997 and has developed a loyal and enthusiastic audience of varying ages who have undoubtedly learned as much about themselves from watching the show as they have about the characters portrayed in the fictional land of The Oswald State Correctional Facility.
An 'experimental' cell block within OZ, Emerald City (a.k.a. 'Em City') is the brainchild of the altruistic but conflicted Tim Mc Manus (powerfully played by actor and Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney), who has visions of a better life for convicted felons including opportunities for education and recognition, creative expression, conjugal visits, modern facilities and, ultimately, rehabilitation. His efforts are endlessly frustrated by the corrupt Gov. Devlin (Zeljko Ivanek), and are frequently roadblocked by the less idealistic, often beleaguered Prison Warden Leo Glynn (passionately played by veteran actor Ernie Hudson).
Also committed to helping the prisoners lead a more humane existence are Father Ray Mukada (B.D. Wong), prison doctor Gloria Nathan (Lauren Velez), who lives to see her husband killed by inmate Ryan O' Reily (Dean Winters), who has a fatal attraction crush on her. The venerable Edie Falco appears in several seasons as Corrections Officer Diane Wittlesey, who becomes romantically involved with Mc Manus and also harbors some shadowy secrets of her own. Actress Kristin Rohde delivers a powerhouse portrayal of evil Corrections Officer Claire Howell, who manages to make life pretty unpleasant for her fellow staffers (Mc Manus in particular) as well as the hapless prisoners she is assigned to oversee. Actor Robert Clohessy has a continuing role as Corrections Officer Sean Murphy, a friend of Tim Mc Manus, and one of the genuinely humane guards to be found within the walls of OZ.
Oscar/Emmy/Grammy/Tony award-winning actress/singer Rita Moreno gives a stellar performance as Sister (yes, she is a nun!) Peter Marie Reimondo, who is the prison psychologist and nearly loses her vocation amidst the unrelenting inner conflict, danger and temptation she is subjected to. In OZ, it is surely not only the prisoners who suffer, and that is one of the few certainties to be found.
But despite the best efforts of the prison staff, and a plethora of 'prisoner-friendly' social programs initiated by Mc Manus and his colleagues, the system, including Em City, is fraught with fatal flaws which result in riots, bloodshed, and chaos. In spite of the shiny modern facilities of Em City—fluorescent lighting, updated 'pods' (cells)—OZ virtually explodes with shocking backlashes of violence and death. Both Em City and the Gen Pop of OZ represent a prison population living with constant, unrelenting tension stretched tight as a drum and pressed to the limit by an inherently corrupt system that ultimately fails, not only the prisoners and staff, but society at large.
The combined general population (a.k.a. 'Gen Pop') of OZ and Em City comprise a fascinating melange of characters each with their own unique story to tell. In upcoming installments of this series, which will be called 'Portraits In Oz,' we will take a closer look at several of Em City's most notorious inhabitants and the talented cast members who bring them to life, but it is impossible to list all of the fine actors and actresses who comprise Oswald's 'prison population' and 'staff.' Since the character factions within OZ are largely drawn along religious, racial or ethnic lines, a sampling of some of the most noteworthy prisoners include: Latino gang member Miguel Alvarez, sensitively (and chillingly) portrayed by the talented actor Kirk Acevedo. Then there is Black leader Simon Adebisi, who runs the kitchen at OZ and helps manage Em City's 'tit' (drug) trade for a long stint. Adebisi's powerful character with its tenor of subtle menace is interpreted with amazing clarity with a strong performance by Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje. The celebrated actor Eamonn Walker is an OZ mainstay as Muslim leader and activist Kareem Said. Aryan leader Vern Schillinger can be rightfully counted as one of OZ's most notorious and dangerous inmates and the outstanding actor J.K. Simmons captures his malevolent character with bone-chilling realism. Supporting characters, though equally intriguing, include 'tunnel digging' Agamemnon Busmalis (played by Tom Mardirosian); his roommate and buddy Bob Rebadow, subtly played by George Morfogen; and the prisoner known as 'Poet,' captured in all his creative glory by actor MuMs.
Besides this diverse group of inmates, there are within Em City a number of prisoners who don't necessarily fit into any particular religious, ethnic, or racial subgroup and wind up forming alliances of their own. Among these 'outsiders' are some of the pivotal characters of the show. There is the wonderful continuing performance of actor Harold Perrineau as the wheelchair-bound inmate and narrator of the show, Augustus Hill. (Look for my interview with Harold Perrineau in Part Four of this series, 'Profiles In OZ'). Some of the most valuable life lessons to be gleaned from OZ are relayed to the audience via Hill's colorful soliloquies, which are themed and tied to the title of each episode. These life lessons comprise the beginning and end of most episodes, and are peppered throughout as well. Perrineau's offerings of wisdom provide a thoughtful, playful, almost circus-like juxtaposition to the grim, shocking and often mind-numbing realities that the viewer is constantly being bombarded with throughout the show.
Another fascinating resident of Em City is Prisoner # 97N909, also known as Tobias Beecher, played by the fine actor Lee Tergesen (Wayne's World 1 and 2, Weird Science, Black Iris, Homicide: Life On the Street). Beecher is an attorney schooled at Harvard who is convicted of vehicular manslaughter and ultimately finds himself inside a world he didn't realize he was prepared for. Intelligent, quiet and initially nonviolent, he is quickly perceived as easy prey by stronger inmates such as Aryan leader Vern Schillinger (J. K. Simmons), who make his life a living hell. Beecher survives against unbelievable odds, almost losing his soul in the process. But survive, he does, and he even manages to find a male lover in the form of one Prisoner # 98K514, a.k.a. Chris Keller. Keller is played by the handsome and sexy actor Christopher Meloni (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order: SVU, Murder In Greenwich, Runaway Bride). Originally convicted of felony murder, attempted murder, robbery, and assault with a deadly weapon, Keller initially allies with Beecher's enemy Schillinger with the intention of subtly seducing, tormenting and ultimately bringing Beecher down. Fate deals a very different hand when Keller eventually falls in love with Toby despite his best efforts and the resulting ill-fated love affair between Beecher and Keller forms a major plot line of the series. The outstanding performances of Lee Tergesen as Beecher and Christopher Meloni as Chris Keller are undoubtedly two of the strong points in this amazing show. (Look for my interview with actor Lee Tergesen in Part Two of this series, 'Profiles in OZ').
Yet another central character is the conniving, duplistic and often dangerous Irishman, Ryan O'Reily. O'Reily's sinister modus operendi is captured with spine-tingling realism with a deft performance by the immensely talented actor Dean Winters. (Look my interview with Dean Winters in Part Three of this series, 'Profiles In OZ'). In an interesting twist, Winters' real-life brother Scott William Winters appears in a continuing role as Ryan's fictional brother Cyril O'Reily, whose brain was severely damaged in a fatal altercation caused by his brother Ryan. Cyril winds up in OZ as a result of committing a murder at the behest of his sociopathic sibling Ryan.
The cast of HBO's OZ has had more than its share of talented participants both behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras. Guest directors such as Academy Award-winning actress Kathy Bates, Matt Dillon, Chazz Palminteri, Steve Buscemi and Terry Kinney have added to the excellence of the already fine production. In addition, guest appearances by both distinguished actors and exciting new talent include performances by Betty Buckley, Anne Meara, Joel Grey, Elaine Stritch, Charles S. Dutton, Ally Sheedy, Method Man, Milo O'Shea, Uta Hagen, Luke Perry, Roger Rees, Austin Pendleton, David Johansen and Treach. These guest appearances have surely contributed to the outstanding efforts of the main cast in this HBO original series produced by the award-winning production team of Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana.
OZ is disturbing because it asks the viewer to navigate the same uncharted territory as the population and staff of the fictional Oswald State Penitentiary. Incarceration has a way of leveling the playing ground, but somehow life's twists and turns can do the same thing. Life lessons abound within the walls of OZ, but several that immediately come to mind are: 'Know Thyself,' and 'To Thine Own Self Be True.' If the images conjured up in the nightmare world of OZ are frightening, perhaps it is because many of them hit too close to home. Coming face-to-face with one's own inner demons is infinitely more terrifying than simply knowing, perhaps even on some unconscious level, that we have them. OZ asks us to take another step; to look at, even challenge, those demons that we all possess deep within, but manage to spend a lifetime avoiding and denying.
OZ reaches us where we are most vulnerable. It asks us to be real, to shed the mask of illusion. Those caught in the violent vortex of life in OZ are oddly capable of evoking empathy rather than disdain. Perhaps it is because we can see something of ourselves within their struggles, their never-ending pain, suffering and even their propensity to commit acts of seething rage and violence.
Life in OZ serves as a constant reminder that, in the final analysis, we have no choice but to be exactly who we are, no matter which side of the bars we happen to be on. It is not a choice; our survival depends on it.
NEXT WEEK: Bisexual liaisons? The many talents of actor Lee Tergesen extend far beyond his acclaimed role as Harvard-educated attorney Tobias Beecher on HBO's original prison saga, OZ. In an in-depth interview, Tergesen describes his controversial 'on-screen' romance with actor Christopher Meloni, his friendship with OZ creator Tom Fontana, his relationship with the cast and crew of OZ, and his many other projects. We get up close and personal with Lee Tergesen in the next installment of this series, hereafter to be called 'Profiles in OZ.' Don't miss it!
Copyright 2003 by David R. Guarino