HBO // 2001 // 480 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // August 3rd, 2005
"The Vikings, their brutality aside, had their moments of brilliance. At one point, they were such great shipbuilders, that Leif Eriksson and his crew sailed all the way to America. Some people say that he probably went as far down south as the New York harbor. Here's where the brilliance comes in -- they took a look and went back." -- Augustus Hill
The penultimate season of HBO's foul-mouthed and dangerous prison drama, Oz, arrives in yet another wildly overpriced 8-disc DVD collection. Thanks, HBO.
As Season Five opens, the men and women of Emerald City, an experimental wing of Oswald State Penitentiary, are recovering from the fire that ravaged their prison at the end of Season Four. Renovations have been made, and now the inmates are being ushered into what is essentially an entirely new structure. The cells are sparkling clean, the prison is state-of-the-art -- none of it matters, as things are business as usual for the prisoners of Em City.
Inside, the struggle for power continues. Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons, The Gift), leader of the Aryans, is still looking to retain control despite his relocation to the general population. The Italians, led by Chucky "The Enforcer" Pancamo (Chuck Zito, Jimmy Hollywood), want to run the Kitchen -- and, with it, the drugs that are trafficked through it. A horribly burned Reverend Cloutier (Luke Perry, The Fifth Element) exerts his influence even from his hospital bed. Ryan O'Reily (Dean Winters, Love Rome) continues to manipulate every angle and play every side against one another, forever starting trouble but looking to keep him and his brain-damaged brother, Cyril (Dean's real-life brother, Scott William Winters, Good Will Hunting) out of it.
Elsewhere, Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno, Casa de los Babys) attempts to stage a truce between Schillinger and Minister Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker, Unbreakable). Said is put in charge of one of the more troubled inmates, a former addict named Omar White (Michael Wright, The Interpreter) who, as it turns out, loves to sing. That provides the impetus for Em City-creator Tim McManus (Terry Kinney, Sleepers) to institute a new arts program, led by Ryan O'Reily's mother, and culminating in a prison-wide talent show. Also instituted is a state-sponsored program allowing inmates to train guide dogs; following yet another rejected parole, Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo, Bait) joins the program looking for some kind of redemption. Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen, The Forgotten) struggles for a way to see Keller (Christopher Meloni, Law & Order: SVU), who is standing trial for murder and facing the death penalty.
Oz is a great show, but you might not know it from watching The Complete Fifth Season. It's always held its own amidst the pantheon of great television series that HBO has been producing in recent years (it's not as good as The Sopranos, but no show is), but seems to have slipped somewhat by year five. Some of that is a result of the limitations inherent within the structure; when you're dealing with the same actors doing the same things in the same location year after year, you're bound to start repeating yourself. I know that it's part of the Point of the Whole Thing -- the cycle of violence and the day-by-day sameness and the nature of institutionalization and all that stuff -- but it doesn't always lend itself to the dramatic narrative. Even when introducing new characters, mixing things up the only way the series really can, the end results always seem to wind up the same: that character is absorbed into one of the prison's factions, or killed off, or both. Again recognizing that much of this is a deliberate attempt to reflect the prison experience, I'll reiterate that it can grow tiresome -- compelling, sure, but redundant. Besides, what makes Oz work is not slavish faithfulness to reality, but rather the kind of hyper-reality the show creates. That hyper-reality is not always on display here.
What is on display in Season Five (and what has always been the series's strongest suit) is the undeniably powerful acting by the first-rate ensemble. Regardless of any creative stumbles or lack in narrative thrust present in the season, the cast never falters -- this is heavy stuff, and they're all heavy hitters. Christopher Meloni and Lee Tergesen continue to develop the relationship between Keller and Beecher, creating something that's kind of beautiful amidst all of the savagery. Eamonn Walker's Kareem Said is given an interesting character arc, withdrawing from the Nation of Islam and facing a crisis of the soul, and his work is steely and intense and soulful. Watching character actor J.K. Simmons's hilarious rapid-fire attack as Spider-Man's J. Jonah Jameson, one would never associate him with Vern Schillinger -- easily one of the most chilling and detestable villains the small screen has ever known. Even more impressive is that Simmons is an older guy, not terribly physically imposing, and creates such a frightening and charismatic character solely out of dialogue and performance. Didn't we give Anthony Hopkins an Oscar for doing the exact same thing? Where's the love for Simmons?
There are flashes of what makes the show great, but they're too few -- The Complete Fifth Season flirts with brilliance, but never embraces it. Harold Perrineau's (The Matrix Reloaded) narration/hosting is as good as ever, though his eventual fate smacks of a tagged-on cliffhanger (I guess that's what you get for being the show's most likable character). Some of the new character introductions serve the existing characters in the best way possible, such as the presence of the O'Reily brothers' mother as Em City's music teacher; others, like the inclusion of McManus's ex-wife as the mayor's new liaison, feel forced and arbitrary. It's unfortunate that more of the season couldn't have taken a cue from its best episode: "Variety," (directed by actor Roger Rees, of Cheers and Robin Hood: Men in Tights fame) features fantasy sequences in which a number of characters, encased in a glass cell, sing Broadway tunes and pop songs that reflect what's behind their steely facades (think Rob Marshall's Chicago). The numbers highlight what's always been best about the show -- the abstraction, the surrealism, and the theatricality that make it great; the duet between Beecher and Schillinger almost makes Season Five worth recommending alone.
Oz -- The Complete Fifth Season comes courtesy of HBO in an 8-episode, 3-disc boxed set that leaves quite a bit to be desired. The shows are presented full frame, just as they were in their original broadcasts. I'm not sure whether or not there were some budget cuts made by Season Five, but the episodes included here seem, I don't know, cheap. The images are extremely grainy -- some of that appears to have been an aesthetic choice, but some appears to be the result of a less-than-stellar transfer. Whatever the cause, I can't say. I just know that there is a lot of visible grain present in this set. There are other moments when the video photography really gives itself away (usually during moments of action, where the camera is required to make a quick move or the director is trying to underscore the speed of a given sequence). Again, this appears to be more of a conscious choice than an end result of the DVD, but it all just looks, I don't know, cheap.
The audio on the set fares considerably better than the video quality. We're given two English-language options (a third is in Spanish, which I don't speak): a 5.1 surround mix and a standard 2.0 stereo mix. Naturally, the 5.1 mix is stronger -- the disc utilizes some excellent separation effects to really put the viewer in the middle of Emerald City. The stereo mix is serviceable as well, but the 5.1 option is preferable.
While the extras on these HBO-show sets aren't typically anything to get excited about, those on Oz -- The Complete Fifth Season are even less stellar than most. There's one -- count it, one -- commentary track by series creator Tom Fontana and actor Dean Winters, speaking over the season's final episode, "Impotence." It's pretty standard commentary stuff, and neither enhances nor enriches the experience of the show. A collection of deleted scenes, running about twenty minutes, is also included; while it does showcase some more of the cast's acting chops, the sequences don't really demand viewer attention. My favorite bonus feature on the set -- and it's not even an extra, really -- is the available recap for each of the show's previous four seasons. It's fairly superfluous if you've been watching Oz from the beginning, but a nice way to refresh your memory and get caught up to speed before launching into Season Five.
If you've already gone out and purchased the first four seasons of Oz, there's no reason why you shouldn't go out and pick up Season Five -- even if it isn't quite as strong as it's been in previous years. Unfortunately, as HBO continues their trend of price gouging, collecting every season in a given series is becoming more and more difficult to do. I know as well as anyone that many of the network's shows -- The Sopranos, Sex and the City, even past seasons of Oz -- are so good that we're willing to pay their ridiculous prices just to get our hands on them. But when a series has a season-long stumble, as is the case with Oz -- The Complete Fifth Season, it's a different story. Is there such a thing as a Lower-Quality Discount?
Despite the atypically weak season, I'm not going to worry about locking up Oz. It would be redundant.
Review content copyright © 2005 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 480 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Audio Commentary by Series Creator Tom Fontana and Star Dean Winters on Episode 8, "Impotence"
* Official Site