This is a discussion of an HBO cable show that ran from 1997 to 2003. it was the brain child of Tom Fontana (b. 1951) who began working with sound tape at age 9, the end of the period in life that is called the “adrenarche” and just before adolescence. In other words, part of his identity and the way he thinks is linked closely to spoken and staged words, which frees him up to think about content and character.
Since he began his TV career, he has focused on the underclass (the poor, the disenfranchised, the recent immigrants, the inner city) from an idealistic point of view. His main characters are people fighting the riptide of crime and poverty that takes people under and the context is always a claustrophobic institution where the main escape is via death. There are always mitigating “inside” dark or bitter jokes and transgressive rebellion, sometimes violent and tragic and other times ridiculous. In other words, the roots of this sort of plotting are in Greek theatre with its religiously moral context. “Oz” uses the device of the Greek chorus to reflect on the issues.
In these times of tumult with a lot of non-readers trying to address these issues, the series feeds a craving for some kind of understanding or at least the feeling that someone cares. Fontana himself is Italian and thus culturally Catholic but the writer Sunil Nayar from India seems to bring a Hindu New Age sort of feeling that offers a bit of transcendence to the Manhattan liberal Jewish hunger for justice. I wish someone would do a analysis of the sociology of this group that dominates media from the East Coast in a more sophisticated theatrical way than does the film community on the West Coast.
Long-form troubador tales go back to before the Iliad. which is why you’re supposed to study it in high school. By the time "Oz" arrives, we have all grown attached to massive novels that work through generations of families. We’ve loved soap operas on the radio that carry families and neighborhoods through long arcs of crisis, redemption and renewal. They are in our blood stream. The hour-long episodes of a series that lasts years, especially those with high production values and excellent writing, are more recently pioneered in shows like “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and then freed by a cable channel like HBO where the limits are privately set and thus free to go to the edge.
It appears that this permission turned loose a pent-up store of stories about men. One could even say “hypermen” rather like the “leatherman” movement that involved Tim Barrus, except that these are naked men, clearly revealing that most of them are “gym-bulls” with extraordinarily developed bodies, but nothing real to do with all that muscle and with completely undeveloped minds and souls. There are enough exceptions, like the Bert and Ernie pals, to make the point.
To watch these episodes three at a time is like reading chapters in a book. One can put the book down and walk around a bit to think and work off some adrenaline, maybe go to the Internet to search for information about something related, But to treat the DVD’s this way is probably not typical. I know that kids will obsessively watch over-and-over episodes of violence or sex that intrigue them. I watched alone and on two levels, one monitoring the story and so on and the other one watching tech matters like camera angles or timing and other choices. The voice-overs I listened to were unhelpful, so I stopped playing them.
What came to the surface was that the actors had their own “series” going in the dynamics among them and -- as the series became more and more popular -- with the public that was highly attentive and not always aware that this was fiction, though very realistic fiction. In fact, because some of the actors were type-cast and related in real life, the writers began to pick up on characteristics and dimensions of their real lives. I used to do this when I was writing plays for high school kids, in the best of times pulling in the kids themselves to self-consciously help with plot and dialogue. It worked pretty well. Fontana was quick to say which actors participated in creating their characters, thinking up twists and quirks. Far from feeling exploited, they felt it was a chance to develop themselves and their careers. I think that was accurate. But they were self-conscious in letting outsiders know about it -- I think in part that accounts for the horsing around in commentary, but these are guys who LOVE horisng around. "Oz" became a kind of club where the cast of extras hung out.
In fact, the dimension that made me most uncomfortable was the occasional feeling -- in commentary on the DVD’s and elsewhere -- that this series went dangerously close to porn for pencil-necked white guys who used to get sand kicked in their face at the beach. Charles Atlas probably had more teen boys in a furor than even Playboy. Certainly earlier. The illusion that some mild-mannered guys have about bodies and power no doubt kept them watching.
Okay, fine. If you took out all the “f-words,” the show would be half as long. It looked at male nudity in a way that had never been in plain public sight before. Gay sexuality -- as an inborn aspect of personhood, as a power venue, as a adaptation to drives with no conventional outlet, and as emotional connection overwhelming everything else -- was simply there. The most magnetic triangle was the love/hate/sex mix of Christopher Meloni and Lee Tergesen with J.K. Simmons sometimes in play. It appears that this thread came out of the “chemistry” between Meloni and Tergesen, neither of whom are conventionally “gay” but both of whom are daring and passionate.
Talking about religion or portraying religious professionals on television is as dangerous and misunderstood as sex IMHO. Several energetic and brilliant serieses about churches have been smothered by intolerance. This series did at least scratch the surface in several honorable ways made possible by really fine actors. Everyone loved Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno) and Father Ray Mukada (B. D. Wong.) Malachi McCourt pulled in the traditional irish priest and humanized him. Eamon Walker as the Imam Said was particularly remarkable and powerful. As Dean Winters remarked, one wonders whether his character could even be created and developed now after 9/11.
(to be continued)