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The Boston Phoenix Truth and Consequences

Oz, Futurama, Tenacious D., and The Norm Show

By Robert David Sullivan

APRIL 5, 1999:  Switch the channel to HBO's prison drama Oz any Wednesday night at 10 and you'll find out what might happen after Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) shames a defendant into accepting a plea bargain on Law & Order. "You'll be out in six years," McCoy is likely to say, as if offering an unbelievably low mortgage rate on a new house. In many cases, the viewer is inclined to agree that the negligent doctor, or the hot-tempered dad who killed his daughter's fiancé, is getting a good deal. He'll miss a few Thanksgivings, but he'll be able to resume his comfortable life before long. Bring on the next case, Curtis and Briscoe.

But one show's tidy ending is another's horrific introduction. In the first chapter of Oz, a clean-cut, bespectacled lawyer named Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) arrives in Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary (commonly abbreviated to the show's title) after killing a girl while driving drunk. (Reruns of the entire series began on March 24, with new episodes appropriately set to arrive on Bastille Day, July 14.) Twenty minutes into the episode, his cellmate brands a swastika into his ass -- a bit of cosmetic surgery that was presumably not included in Beecher's court sentence. Over the course of the series, Beecher is slowly transformed from the conscience of his cellblock (trying to save another inmate from death row) to a walking time bomb of irrational rage. We've seen this kind of turnabout in plenty of prison movies, but only a television drama can handle character development in something approaching real time.

Beecher is, of course, not a typical inmate in Oz. He's outnumbered by gangsters and violent drug dealers (many of them more powerful in prison than on the streets), with some freelance hotheads thrown in to add some unpredictability. Most of these characters, like the guy who gunned down a bride and groom on the front steps of a church, are the kind who turn NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz into an angry tsunami of spit and sweat every Tuesday night. Their crimes are effectively shown in brief flashbacks, and their attitudes in prison cover all the bases, including defiance, remorse, and new-found religious beliefs that may or may not be sincere. Among the dozens of prisoners, only a few come off as caricatures -- notably, a cannibal and a death-row inmate who suddenly confesses to having suffocated 39 women. The remainder are more terrifying than anything cooked up on The X-Files (J.K. Simmons as a white supremacist) or fascinatingly enigmatic (Eamonn Walker as a Muslim leader with increasing influence over the black inmates). The prison staff is equally diverse, ranging from crooked guards to B.D. Wong's heartbreakingly forgiving Catholic priest. Fans of HBO's The Sopranos should also note Edie Falco as one of the few women guards, who says she chose her thrilling career only because all the factories have closed down in the unnamed city that's lucky enough to host Oz.

We can assume that Oz doesn't take place in Massachusetts, but next week's episode happens to feature the demagogic Governor Devlin (Zeljko Ivanek), who can't wait to try out his state's freshly restored death penalty. Devlin's crowd-pleasing crime policy also includes a ban on cigarettes and the elimination of conjugal visits from prisoners' wives. Amoral politicians are nothing new on TV, but we rarely see the consequences of their grandstanding as we do on Oz. (Since Oz storylines frequently involve the families of inmates, I'd love to see an episode that plays off Governor Weld's policy of shipping prisoners off to Texas.)

Oz was created by Tom Fontana, who has co-produced Homicide: Life on the Street and St. Elsewhere. What all three shows have in common is a faithfulness to the arbitrary nature of life. Major characters are irrecoverably changed -- or killed off -- with a regularity that keeps viewers deliciously off-balance. All are true ensemble series, and the richest storylines come from characters who fight for more of a spotlight, usually with tragic results. On Homicide, there was Kellerman's war against the Mahoney family, which ultimately ensnared all the other regular characters; now we have Bayliss's awkward questioning of his sexual orientation. Oz has Ryan O'Reilly, an Irish inmate who sticks his fingers in all of the cellblock's pies, goading the black, Italian, and Latino prisoners into continuing a cycle of violence based on revenge and retribution. Even The Sopranos, the only current drama series to surpass Oz, operates on this principle -- think of how much trouble can be traced to Christopher's attempts to become a major "player."

The success of Oz at transcending the neat-and-tidy endings of network TV could open the door to other innovative series. How about a medical drama about what happens to all those patients wheeled out of ER or Chicago Hope with hideous scars or missing limbs? Sure, they're grateful to Dr. Carter at first, but don't you think some of them later wish they'd been treated by Smilin' Jack Kevorkian? Or how about a show featuring all those perfectly nice people who were dumped for no good reason by characters on Seinfeld and Friends -- and have become bitter, hateful creatures out for revenge? Well, maybe a couple of them will show up on Oz.

Second chances aren't easy to come by in Oz, but it's a different story for the hero of Fox's Futurama, the long-awaited cartoon series by The Simpsons' creator, Matt Groening. The premise is that a Homer-like loser named Fry was accidentally frozen for a thousand years, waking up just in time to see the calendar flip to the year 3000. Fortunately, everyone still speaks English, and plenty of celebrities from the 1990s (part of the "Stupid Ages") have been preserved in the form of talking heads -- and I mean that literally.

This week's premiere was promising, full of the dizzy wit that has been fading from The Simpsons in recent years. None of the human characters from Springfield made a crossover appearance, but sharp-eyed viewers might have glimpsed "Blinky," the three-eyed fish from an early Simpsons episode. The regular characters include Bender, an alcoholic robot who literally shits a brick when frightened (in a quick sight gag that probably would have been extended to a full minute on South Park). Consumer products of the future include suicide machines that look like phone booths and something called "Bachelor Chow." Unlike the other prime-time cartoons introduced this year, Futurama requires repeated viewings if you're going to catch all the jokes, so it would be wise to get the episodes on videotape.

HBO's Tenacious D. is a spinoff of sorts from the best sketch-comedy series on television, David Cross & Bob Odenkirk's Mr. Show. (Sorry, but the often self-indulgent Tracey Takes On . . . isn't as funny as Tracey Ullman's Fox series from the late '80s.) Cross and Odenkirk are among the producers of this three-episode comedy about a "heavy acoustic" rock duo who dominate an open-mike night in what appears to be a less glamorous version of Fitchburg. In one indication of their completely unfounded egotism, they introduce a performance with: "Caution. The surgeon general of rock warns that the next band is equal to 29 orgasms."

The last, and best, episode of this mildly funny series was "The Fan." In "The Fan," Tenacious D. members Jack Black and Kyle Gass (the actors' real names) are approached by a weird-looking guy who knows a little too much about them. The twist on this well-worn set-up is not unexpected, but it does deliver some laughs. If the series ever comes back, though, I'd like to see some of the other open-mike contestants. If these guys aren't the worst, God help the regulars at this bar.

The Norm Show (Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC) airs right before Oz, and this juxtaposition points up the difference between the free networks and HBO. The former news anchor on Saturday Night Live plays an ex-hockey player who has been convicted of tax fraud but isn't sent to prison -- which seems a shame given MacDonald's longtime fondness for jokes about gay sex. Instead, he is "sentenced" to become a social worker, under the supervision of former Roseanne co-star Laurie Metcalf (acting more and more like a young Carol Burnett). I wonder whether this silly premise wasn't inspired by George Costanza's original idea for a sit-com on Seinfeld (before he came up with the "nothing" idea), which involved a traffic scofflaw's being "sentenced" to serve as a butler. MacDonald is funny enough, but he's just playing his boorish self. So why not ditch the sit-com and give him 10 minutes in the middle of 20/20 to deliver the news? MacDonald and Barbara Walters would be the most inspired comedy team since . . . well, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer.

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