Television

Animal Farm

Those sexy brutes of HBO’s new prison series, Oz.

There is a moral that HBO is trying to impart in its new series, Oz, a prison drama that’s less an experiment in penal realism than a work of penal pornography. The moral is: Whitey best not drive drunk. If he does, he’ll kill a little white girl, end up in the Oswald Maximum Security Prison (the “Oz” of the title), and become “bitch” either to a well-muscled black thug or, because this is television and scrupulous racial balance must be maintained, to a psychopathic Aryan Brotherhood member.

Such is the fate of the character Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), a bespectacled white lawyer who cowers and cringes through the first episode, which raises the question: Didn’t he ever see Sean Penn in Bad Boys? Didn’t he at least see Scared Straight, the proto-gangsta documentary that introduced a generation of sheltered white boys to the idea that you shouldn’t show fear in prison unless you enjoy the depredations of men who in less polite times were referred to as “buck Negroes”? Beecher is the stand-in for the mass of Caucasian viewers who have been conditioned by Hollywood to fear the prospect of being anally raped by black convicts. In the Jim Crow era, white men oppressed black men partially out of fear that the blacks would ravish virginal white women. Today, white men fear ravishment themselves. This is progress.

Oz, like Scared Straight and the thousands of other movies and television shows of the past 20 years that have featured fearsome black thugs, attests to the continued fascination white people have for what Mr. Snoop Doggy Dogg has referred to as “black gangsta shit.” Oz is different from these other television series in that its violence is especially grandiose and it employs the word “fuck” with Raging Bull-like frequency. Otherwise Oz does not differ much from NYPD Blue or any number of other television shows that purport to take us inside the justice system. The producers of Oz, Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, are also responsible for Homicide: Life on the Street, which does a far better job, with fewer grotesqueries, of showing us the sausage factory of criminal justice.

Oz is a sadist’s delight, a postmodern, amoral, John Wooish romp. The executives at Time Warner, HBO’s parent company, have evidently given their subordinates the go-ahead to interpret the “reality” of prison life in all its animalistic splendor, and Messrs. Levinson and Fontana revel in their freedom. Here is a partial catalogue of the violence seen within the first 120 minutes of Oz: a gay prisoner is beaten nearly to death in a shower; the woeful Beecher has a swastika branded on his buttock; a couple is murdered at their wedding; an AIDS patient is suffocated; a prisoner is beaten senseless by guards, then soaked in lighter fluid by another prisoner and set afire; a police officer is murdered, and the suspect is thrown from a roof; and so on. For the pleasure of the home viewing audience, there are several anal-cavity checks, seen, blessedly, from the side.

I was reminded while watching Oz of the time I worked as a police reporter during the height of Washington, D.C.’s crack wars. I would linger over the scenes of violence–the teen-ager with a baseball-sized bullet hole in his head, the detective measuring the hole by inserting his pencil into the teen-ager’s skull–a little bit longer than was absolutely necessary. Oz is fascinating the way dead bodies are fascinating.

Aside from the violence and flamboyant cruelty, Oz is, in fact, quaint. It is peopled by the stockiest of stock characters. There is, for instance, Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker), a black Muslim so holy and peaceful he makes Spike Lee’s beatified Malcolm X look like Al Sharpton. In one particularly hilarious scene, Said nearly manages to bring a psychopathic Italian gangster to Allah. There is also an Aryan nutjob, a white longhaired cannibal, a wise-ass Latino, a Westies-style Irish killer, various stone-cold black drug dealers–it’s like one of those ethnically correct World War II platoon movies. One of the quaintest notions has the prison under the surreptitious control of the Mafia, led by Tony Musante, who plays Oz’s ruling capo and delivers the show’s wittiest lines.

I t is true that the men of what is known euphemistically in law enforcement circles as “traditional organized crime” still have footholds in some of New York state’s prisons, but it is seriously out of date to suggest that black gangsters live in fear of the Mafia. The more interesting thing happening inside America’s prisons today, at least according to the prosecutors I know, is the rise of the dead-hearted black teen-age killer, who makes even the older black inmates quake in fear of his sociopathy.

The anachronistic feel of Oz extends to the prison administration itself, and to the big questions the series is supposed to be asking. It is meant, one gathers, to shock America’s conscience about the state of our penal system, and so much of the dialogue is in essence a debate about methods of incarceration. Said debate in Oz takes place primarily between the prison warden, Leo Glynn, a traditionalist played by Ernie Hudson, and the director of the prison’s experimental progressive unit–nicknamed, of course, Emerald, or “Em,” City–played by Terry Kinney. Hudson’s casting is in line with what I call the Lieutenant Fancy rule, which holds that, like NYPD Blue’s captain of detectives, all top law officials on television must be black, to salve the aching consciences of the white producers who understand that they make money exploiting crude stereotypes of black thugs for the titillation of their white audiences.

Hudson is too amiable an actor to play a hard-bitten warden–he was, after all, once a Ghostbuster. And Kinney struggles under the weight of some of the series’ most inadvertently hilarious lines, such as “Do you know why in Em City I put lifers in with all the rest? So people can learn to live together.” Prison officials stopped talking this way circa 1971.

The 60-minute episodes are organized not around some aspect of rehabilitation, but around murder–the only thing that is progressive about Emerald City, as best the viewer can tell, is that the prisoners are allowed to walk about at will, which allows them to murder and rape every six minutes or so. The series’ creators understand that people don’t possess the will or interest to watch a television series about real penal reform, or to address the underlying moral and economic conditions that help fill the prisons. What people want is the spilling of guts.