Unique 'Oz' a Violent Hour in Prison

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

HBO's new "Oz" is a prison series that shackles viewers to a universe of such unrelieved violence, grimness and hopelessness that watching it is painful.

It's interesting, at times compelling work from producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, whose charismatic "Homicide: Life on the Street" on NBC is reason enough to attract you to their latest distinctive collaboration.

And typical of risk-taking HBO, you know almost immediately upon watching "Oz" that you're nowhere near Kansas anymore. There's nothing like it elsewhere on TV--nor, probably, will there ever be.

But its uniqueness and arresting style don't earn it an unqualified endorsement here, for its first two Fontana-written episodes are absolute downers--there's no light at the end of a tunnel, nor even a tunnel--that offer no central characters to like or pull for.

Be forewarned, too, that "Oz" is flat-out the most violent and graphically sexual series on TV. By contrast, it makes ABC's "NYPD Blue" look and sound like dancing Barney.

The "Oz" title relates to the story's setting in Emerald City, a sterile, deceptively gleaming, high-tech experimental unit of the fictional Oswald Maximum Security Prison where rehabilitation is stressed but ethnic and philosophical rivalries translate to seething hatreds and body bags.

"Oz" uses a convict in a wheelchair (Harold Perrineau) as host-narrator. Addressing the camera at times, he introduces often bloody flashbacks that explain and humanize his fellow inmates without excusing them. None is sympathetic, not even a mousy, middle-class lawyer (Lee Tergesen), whose drunk-driving manslaughter conviction has landed him in a cell with a burly, bullying white supremacist (JK Simmons), who uses him sexually and tattoos a swastika on his butt.

Also looming ominously is Emerald City's kingpin "wise guy" (Tony Musante) and his ferocious protege (Jon Seda), who savagely beats a homosexual coming on to him in the shower, and later does duty as an orderly in the AIDS unit. Also showing up is a magnetic Muslim organizer (Eamonn Walker).

Meanwhile, Emerald City's chief administrator (Terry Kinney) is an idealist who nevertheless plays God with inmates' lives. Easily the most likable character in the first two episodes is a nun (Rita Moreno) who counsels inmates and schedules conjugal visits. Those visits are a centerpiece of Episode 2, which also probes the grisly murder that concludes Episode 1.

Credit "Oz" with good performances and a patina of authenticity. True or not, many of the dark emotions expressed here are what you might expect from the bleak moonscape of prison life. At one point in the premiere, Perrineau's convict narrator says he worries less about getting knifed in the back than about prison tedium " 'cause . . . the routine, the routine'll kill ya."

It's the routine of "Oz" that is so punishing here, like being confined for an hour with something unpleasant and oppressive. It's quality work, but watch it at your own risk.

* "Oz" premieres at 11:30 tonight on HBO, then will be seen Mondays at 11 p.m. The network has rated it TV-MA (not intended for viewers under 18).

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