Prison drama is pretty strong stuff Review: Despite its quality writing and performances, HBO's 'Oz' may be taking its pay-cable license to kill a little too seriously.

July 11, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Be forewarned: "Oz," the award-winning HBO drama about life in a maximum security prison, returns for its second season tonight, and the news is that it contains one of the most graphic scenes ever shown on television.

Those familiar with the series produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, of "Homicide: Life on the Street," might wonder how it could top last year in terms of brutality. That pilot featured one inmate branding another after he raped him. The season went on to include an electrocution and several especially gory murders.

But top it they do tonight when one inmate attacks another during an act of oral sex. It is only one of several scenes that surely will make some viewers wonder whether Fontana, the Emmy-winning writer-producer who wrote the screenplay, is sometimes going more for shock value than anything else in "Oz."

Last season, I defended "Oz" without reservation. After seeing the first three episodes of this season, I am starting to think that some of the violence is excessive and that it is there primarily because this is pay cable and Fontana can get away with upping the violence ante on pay cable.

That said, there is still a lot to like about this drama. Tonight's episode features Baltimore's Charles ("Roc") Dutton as Alvah Case, a distinguished law school dean called in to investigate the riot on which the first season ended. Six inmates and two law enforcement officers were killed in the riot, and the future of Emerald City, the experimental unit of the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary, hangs on the outcome of the investigation.

This is not Dutton at the top of his game, but even middle-range Dutton is better than just about any other actor you'll see on TV this summer. And Fontana cleverly uses the character as a kind of moral compass or, at least, a point of re-entry into the hell that is Oz.

The sleazy governor who appointed Case to head the investigation (Zelijko Ivanek) wants a tidy conclusion that blames the deadly riot on the inmates, but that is not what the evidence suggests to Case as he goes from inmate to inmate, officer to officer, picking his way back through the explosion of violence.

Yes, Ivanek, too, is from "Homicide." And if Fontana, Levinson, Ivanek and Dutton are not enough of a Baltimore connection for you, the prison images in the opening credits are of the Maryland State Penitentiary although the series is filmed in New York.

And, then, there is Lee Tergesen, who also appeared on #F "Homicide." Tergesen plays inmate Tobias Beecher, an Ivy League attorney who wound up here after killing someone while driving drunk. Beecher was the prisoner branded last year by his cellmate, Vern Shillinger, then head of the Aryan contingent.

Fontana uses Beecher as an instrument to calibrate the brutality in such a prison for viewers. Beecher has gone from middle-class professional at the start of last year's pilot to madman capable of savagery that can't be described in this paper but can be shown in considerable detail on HBO. I'm not sure I can relate to Beecher any more, but I admit to watching his descent with fascination. Much of the credit for that goes to Tergesen's performance.

There are other strong performances in "Oz." In fact, there are probably more here than in any network drama this side of "Homicide." Harold Perrineau as Augustus Hill, an inmate in a wheelchair who serves as a kind of mock "Our Town" narrator, is mesmerizing. Terry Kinney, as Tim McManus, the idealistic chief of Oz, burns as hot as anyone on television. Rita Moreno, B.D. Wong and Dean Winters are all compelling.

Make no mistake about it, "Oz" is quality, adult drama. Several episodes are written by Fontana, generally considered to be one of the five best writers in television. The directors range from Jean de Segonzac of "Homicide" to Kathy Bates, the Oscar-winning actress who also took a turn behind the camera for "Homicide."

There's no question about the quality. The fear is that "Oz" will go overboard and drown in its pay-cable freedom to go adult.

Second season

What: "Oz"

Where: HBO

When: 10:15 to 11:15 tonight

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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