The inmates at the Oswald State Correctional Facility seem a little blue on the jarring sixth-season premiere of HBO's "Oz" (9 p.m. Sunday).
"More than usual?" asks executive producer and creator Tom Fontana, laughing.
It's no joking matter. You almost feel for the murderers, rapists, drug dealers, thieves and other rogues -- almost -- who are wearing frowny faces for assorted reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that this is the last season for one of the grittiest, grimmest and most mesmerizing series on television.
And in a way, their general malaise -- for reasons that range from lost loved ones to released loved ones to loved ones in the process of being lost -- has everything to do with the series going off the air.
Those last eight episodes include the death of a longtime inmate, freedom for another, a clarity and realization of life for two more, and the dehumanizing of a prisoner on the edge of what could be his last days.
The large cast includes Ernie Hudson as the warden, Rita Moreno as the prison psychologist, and Eamonn Walker, Lee Tergesen, Dean Winters and Vern Schillinger as inmates.
"If anything, where I'm going with certain characters is to -- I hate using the word 'resolve' -- but to move the character up to another level before the series ends," says Fontana, 51, who has written practically every episode since "Oz" bowed in 1997.
He decided to end "Oz" before it overstayed its welcome: He didn't know if he could produce a seventh season that could stand up to the preceding six.
Allan Johnson writes about television for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.