Tom Fontana: Wizard of Oz

Make text smaller Make text larger

"Do you cast for penis size?" Oz fans want to know. But I couldn't ask Tom Fontana, the HBO series' creator-writer, a question that loaded, because in conversation he seemed so sensible?not the wild man who actually gets the Oz logo tattooed on his own arm during the credits for the prison drama series, now in its fifth year. We spoke because Oz is the most fascinating series on television and the DVD release of its first season was a time to reflect on its serious sensationalism.

Few people admit to watching Oz. Without the mainstream cache of HBO's inferior The Sopranos, Fontana has tooled the series to depict a national crisis: the prison industrial complex and the incarceration of socially disadvantaged men?black and white?who act out the country's suppressed anxieties and lusts. Yeah, it's also the sexiest program in series television history, and not simply because Fontana writes scenarios of forbidden prison fucks, a spectacular blowjob-cum-killing and shadowy jackoffs. Oz has other claims to legitimacy: it observes racial tension through black politics and the shifting, metaphorical movement of leadership from warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson), African prisoner Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), Muslim minister Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker) and original gangsta Burr Redding (Anthony Chisholm). Additional male-bonding plots include the O'Reily brothers (Dean and Scott Winters) and the on-and-off seductions between straight-arrow Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) and predatory Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni)?opposite social types drawn to the "other" in almost every conceivable way. But their attraction is as variable as true passion itself, which puts Oz miles ahead of cliche tv romances like Now and Again. Its tattoo-title warns "We're not in Kansas anymore!"

"Obviously, I wanted the title to be ironic," Fontana says. "At first I named the medium-security prison Club Med. Most people think Lee Harvey Oswald, but Oswald was the name of the warden at Attica?a complete asshole?during the 1972 riots. In a way, it's a halfhearted homage to the Attica riots, which was part of the reason I wanted to do the series. When Attica happened I didn't understand it. I've been trying to understand it ever since."

Everybody seems to recognize?without admitting?that Oz tells truths about humanity at its most naked. Penis size? Try fantasy size. Prison dramas are remote from modern consciousness (unlike gangster sagas, where the sadistic extremes of The Sopranos are comforting to middlebrow viewers) but Fontana has turned Oz into an exploration of the frustrations Americans cannot legitimately express. Previously known for St. Elsewhere and for his collaboration with the ponderously shallow Barry Levinson on the series Homicide, Fontana is proudest of Oz's sociological component.

"The idea came out of Homicide, where you're sending all these people to prison and you wonder what happened to them," he explains. "In broadcast tv the happy ending was prison. I was trying to look past the happy ending to the not-so-happy followup. I didn't really start doing the show with any agenda about prison reform. I started with a fascination with the population in prison, stories never told on television. Over time I've gotten more and more politicized about what is right and what is wrong about American justice. I haven't actually seen a lot of fictionalized prison movies. I did see Short Eyes and Fortune and Men's Eyes but only in the theater. For me the show comes more from prison documentaries that I've seen a lot on HBO. I did about two years of research going in and out of prison. My job as a storyteller is to ask questions and provoke discussion between two people sitting in bed watching the show together, or around the water cooler, rather than trying to preach anything. I can tell this story fully over a long period of time so that the lives I'm depicting are not little spurts of drama, they're as long as prison terms."

The only tv series to deal with race honestly, Oz is matter-of-factly shocking, mixing Aryan Nation fascists with Black Muslim zealots?contrasts unknown to producers of series like NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues. Those shows essentially glorify gnarly cop brutality?like FX's new The Shield?in the guise of being hard-hitting. Oz is hard fucking. Fontana wins tv's writer-producers pissing match (an egotistical club chartered by Stephen J. Cannell, Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley) by regularly parading his actors' endowments as a sign that all men are created equal?and BIG?even though the legal system treats them differently.

Asking if Fontana casts for endowment is like asking if Ally McBeal's David E. Kelley casts for estrogen. Almost every episode dangles evidence of intent. Viewers use Oz to confront tv's oft-hidden obscenities. Working under the radar, just like the writers and performers on daytime soaps, Fontana comes up with truth in the guise of trash. Each vaudeville begins with an interlocutor, Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), a lifer imprisoned to a wheelchair, who sermonizes on pseudo-profound topics (often the Seven Deadly Sins). That's just Fontana nodding to tv convention?to Rod Serling solemnity. Any single episode of Oz proves that Fontana's not really of the homiletic school but an iconoclast.

"TV tends to bring up complex questions and tries to answer them simply, and does a disservice all around," Fontana says. "I have always perceived Oz as the world in small. We have dealt with ageism, racism, drug addiction, treatment of women, gays?many of the social issues that are out there?and how they're refracted through the personalities of these men who have committed extreme actions. It's important to remember this is an institution filled with men who have committed at least one extreme action in their lives. Most people don't reach that level of emotion or violence. The show has always played in a slightly elevated place, not a pure representation of America but a kind of large mural."

Most tv producers' compassion is limited to their Nielsen demographic. Oz has won over audiences whose tastes exceed network and cable presumption but are defined by the latest cultural developments and shaken up by recent urban politics. It's cast with the best New York actors and directed by bold independents. It's rarely shot on the streets (and so doesn't fake documentary authenticity) but its delirious prison context plays out a genuine New York mind set. Even if you've never seen Oz, you've thought it.

"I don't have any hard numbers," Fontana tells me, "but over the years HBO has said to me that we do very well for them. It's not like we're the weak sister. We deliver large numbers. The Sopranos appeals mostly to young white males. Ours has the most diverse audience of any HBO series. That makes me very happy. I want to write about the diversity in the world, not one kind of thing. We just had the signing of the DVD over at Tower Records?hundreds of people showed up, they had to turn people away. It wasn't just young people?older, white, black, male, female, people with kids, people with boyfriends. It really reinforced for me the idea that the show appeals to a lot of different people."

Sex and race, the things that most immediately rile American viewers, explain why Oz has gone uncelebrated. Fontana has blended them into a top-shelf cocktail. The show is as sexually bold as it is racially frank. MAD TV's "Coz" parody, putting Bill Cosby in Oz, advised: "If you love pudding and man-sex."

"I loved that!" Fontana exclaims. "I'll tell you the God's honest truth, I don't conceive Oz for any single audience. It's for gays to watch, grandmothers, Asians. To me it's about storytelling. It's about how do people behave toward each other regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. It's about the dichotomy between sex for power and sex for love in terms of the Beecher-Keller storyline. For me it's a story that never settles down in either place. Sometimes it's about this extraordinary love between these two men, and the extraordinary brutality. In my head I've never defined it as anything other than, in Beecher's case, what one does positively and negatively to survive in that environment. His need for intimacy. I don't see it as homosexual, but as a need for intimacy. I love when old women tell me they love the Beecher-Keller story."

Because Oz is never reassuring, it avoids the disingenuousness of traditional "courageous" television. Fontana doesn't make the Maury Povich-Jenny Jones promise that people can be scared straight. Going so heedlessly into the lower depths of social behavior, he breaks ties with society's regulators and pontificators. Even religion?especially the Catholic Church?gets a harsh spotlight.

"I am a rehabilitated Roman Catholic," Fontana explains. "There are things that I believe about life because of my upbringing as a Catholic. In terms of the structure of the church itself I can't say I'm wildly supportive of it, but I think it's important for a writer to allow his spiritual journey to become a part of his writing. I don't see it as an attack on Catholicism, fundamentalism, Islam or any other religion that we've dealt with. There's not one element of society that is excused from being examined, and the only way to examine it is to have characters be negative about it."

Lawmakers are seen as no more laudable than law-breakers. Oz effects the kind of basic moral instruction that Westerns used to offer?distilling society to its essence and to its origins. Prisoners watching busty puppeteers on a tv kid's show are a skeptical bunch, using the same tv privilege to heckle dissembling politicians like the pompous governor (played by Zeljko Ivanek, who cannily resembles Rudolph Giuliani at his most media-grubbing and unscrupulous). Yet, in a Fontanian twist, Oz sears tv drama to its roots.

It's a comic, postmodern bonus to watch many of its regular cast members appear on other tv shows?cable tv crooks becoming network tv cops. Keller and Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) moonlight on Law & Order: SVU, Burr Redding on 100 Centre Street, Gloria Nathan (Lauren Velez) used to work split-shifts on New York Undercover and Edie Falco went from Oz guard to Sopranos moll. This braided fabric of topsy-turvy tv fantasy suggests some of the true internecine corruption of New York's criminal justice system. Maybe that's why the mainstream press has shied away, hiding behind The Sopranos.

"I love The Sopranos," Fontana claims. "I think it's a brilliantly written and acted show. At its heart it's a family drama. There hasn't been anything on television like Oz, there's no reference point. When you go into a prison you're dealing with a harsher reality than any other institution that exists. There's a harshness to the show that has put certain people off. I think there's an honesty about its sexuality and everything it deals with that is much more in people's faces than the kind of Prozac television where it's all comforting. It's not an easy show to embrace, and most television is about the embrace, being comforted and saying, 'Well, I love having those people in my home, in my living room, in my bedroom.'"

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters