HBO // 2003 // 480 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Gutierrez (Retired) // September 5th, 2006
"That motherf***er's dead." -- Oz inmate
Tom Fontana's landmark television series Oz makes its final inmate count in Oz -- The Complete Sixth Season -- and it's quite a show.
"Oz" is the nickname for the Oswald State Penitentiary, a prison filled with criminals from all walks of life. Emerald City ("Em City") is a failed experimental unit within Oz that mixes lifers, thieves, junkies, and civil dissidents. Prisoners fall into a handful of categories: The Brothers, the Muslims, the Neo-Nazis, the Latins, the Irish, the Gays, and the Others.
Surviving is a daily task in Oz. If the routine doesn't get you, a shank probably will. At the close of Season Five, major character and narrator Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau, Lost) died in the arms of his mentor and friend, Burr Redding (Anthony Chisolm, Dream Street); doomed lovers Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen, Wanted) and Chris Keller (Chris Meloni, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) are once again separated as Keller awaits his execution and Beecher awaits his parole; Nazi leader Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man) is stuck in the hole for rape, and the Iago-like Ryan O'Reilly (Dean Winters, Rescue Me) tries to save his brother, Cyril (Scott Winters, 10-8), from execution. All the while, Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson, Ghostbusters), Tim McManus (Terry Kinney, Save the Last Dance), Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno, The Electric Company), and Father Mukada (B.D. Wong, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) try to bring some sense of order to the prison.
In the final season, we see the body count rise on a consistent basis as series creator Tom Fontana cleans house. Some prisoners take up publishing Augustus Hill's memoirs. Some prisoners go free. Some prisoners will remain incarcerated forever. The inmates also stage a production of Macbeth. Since it's in Oz, expect the production to be wrought with death, destruction, and the resurrection of all-male casting.
Before this review delves into why Oz -- The Complete Sixth Season is remarkable television, let's examine Tom Fontana's record. Making his name on the critically acclaimed St. Elsewhere, Fontana went to co-create one of the finest police dramas on television, Homicide: Life on the Street. From there, he decided to create a television drama taking place solely in a prison.
Dramatically, one might find confining a series to one building creatively limiting. Fontana uses the limitation to make the viewer feel the same confinement that his characters do. With maybe three exceptions, the only times we're taken outside the walls of Oz are during flashback sequences showing a prisoner's crime. The same holds true for the support staff; unless their personal lives bleed into Oz, we never see what happens once they leave for the day.
Spread out over three discs, all eight episodes of Oz -- The Complete Sixth Season feature the same amounts of brutality, love, hate, and drama as the previous five seasons and add the chilling melancholy of finality. From the return of Augustus Hill, now narrating from the afterlife and the addition of guest narrators -- inmates also killed in Oz, the viewer is reminded time and again that time is up and it's almost the end of our collective sentence. Admittedly, the show can verge on ludicrous, but manages to snap itself back before going places it shouldn't.
If you're looking into watching Season Six, chances are you've seen the first five seasons of the show. Each death will have an impact, this I promise. I won't make a list of those who buy the farm and when, but more often than not the deaths are satisfying and shocking.
Fontana gives every major character moments to shine and resolve plots that have brewed since the series began. The Beecher/Keller/Schillinger triangle finally comes to a close. It may not be the payoff slash-fiction has been waiting for, but it's finally over. My favorite character, Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo, Law & Order: Trial By Jury), continues his struggle for redemption and freedom. The main storyline for almost half the season, one that will test whether a viewer has a soul or not, revolves around the O'Reilly family. For six years, we've seen Ryan O'Reilly manipulate every situation to his advantage. Finally, it's all caught up with him and it's his brother, the mentally challenged Cyril, who's paying the price. O'Reilly looks for a sense of purpose and spirituality in one of the best stories of the series. Here's a litmus test to determine if you're human: Watch episode six, "A Day in the Death ..." If you are not in tears by the end of it, you are the walking dead.
Welcome highlights of this season are the unexpected character arcs of Neo-Nazi James Robson (R.E. Rodgers, Johnny Zero) and Officer Claire Howell (Kristin Rohde, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). Originally a pair of truly unsympathetic characters -- one a vicious and sadistic rapist, the other a manipulative, vindictive sex fiend -- Robson and Howell are the characters who experience the most growth over the final eight episodes. In dealing with his expulsion from the Nazi Brotherhood, Robson ends up in uncomfortably ironic situations that lead him to a personal understanding foreign to many inmates. He grows and the viewer's sympathies grow with him. Howell's handling of her own fate shows how she's matured over the years and how she's no longer the woman that made McManus's life a living hell. While neither Robson's nor Howell's situations are surprising -- in fact, you should have seen them coming -- it's the fact that you find yourself caring about them that shows just how far they've come and how good the show is. Much like a viewer's recurring sympathy with Schillinger, Fontana and company have manipulated us into caring for those we thought we'd hate forever.
The true injustice lies not in the crimes depicted on the show, but in how Oz has been ignored. In every episode, each actor is at the height of his of her game. No matter what the role, everyone in the cast and production staff makes every line and action strong and meaningful. I see the shows and people that walk away with Emmys and it confounds me why this one is neglected.
Since it's shot on 16mm film, expect the picture to have lots of grain. Heavy grain and artifacting occur during the darker scenes on the DVD. The show's realistic sound comes across fine here.
HBO upped the number of special features for this final season. Included are commentaries on three episodes. Tom Fontana is joined by Eamonn Walker on one and Terry Kinney on another. The third commentary features Bradford, Dean, and Scott Winters. Listen for some interesting trivia and for the answer to the question that's plagued viewers for over two years now -- When is Oz coming back? Also included are audition tapes, deleted scenes, and an extended cut of the season finale.
Season Six is no starting point for this series. From the first minute of the season's first episode, everything starts to wrap up. If you haven't watched Oz before, nothing will make sense and all the big moments will be meaningless.
This season's near-shark jumping includes the Maxim death-row photo shoot and the killer nurse storylines. Both were incredibly brief, mercifully.
In the end, we're left with one the best and most innovative shows in the history of television. In Augustus Hill's final monologue, he explains what the entire show -- and our entire existence -- is all about. I won't spoil it in this review, but it's something that everyone can appreciate.
Oz -- The Complete Sixth Season and its inmates have been held long enough. They're free to go make television history.
Review content copyright © 2006 David Gutierrez; 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 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 480 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Cast and crew commentary
* Audition tapes
* Deleted scenes
* Extended cut of final episode
* Tom Fontana Site