The SmarK DVD Rant For Oz: Season Two

The SmarK DVD Rant for Oz: Season Two

“You learn a lot about a man when he’s f*cking you up the ass.”

– Tobias Beecher.

When we last left our merry band of prison inmates, a riot had broken out in the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary, and the question of who was alive and who was dead was very much left up in the air. This cliffhanger ended the excellent first season of “Oz”, the only true male soap opera on TV, and set up an even more chilling and complex second season, still focusing on disgraced lawyer Toby Beecher, but adding an extra element that proved to set the show on fire and turn it into the water-cooler show of the year — Chris Keller.

The Film

As a way of keeping the characters fresh and providing a handy excuse to constantly rotate the cast, the aftermath of the riot in season one provided Tom Fontana with a neat twist on the housing arrangements — from the second episode onwards, the inmates within Emerald City (the experimental unit within Oz providing prisoners with more freedom at the expense of having more rules) would be grouped into 10 factions, with each faction having four (and only four) members within the unit at any one time. These factions are:

– Aryans (Schillinger and his Nazis)

– Latinos (Miguel Alvarez and his gang)

– Gangbangers (Adebisi, Kenny and Poet)

– Bikers (Various background players, later including Jazz Hoyt)

– Gays (Various background players)

– Christians (Various background players)

– Irish (Ryan O’ Reilly and Timmy Kirk, pre-Cloutier of course)

– Muslims (Karim Said and his followers)

– Italians (Schibetta’s crew)

– Other (Beecher, Augustus Hill, Rebedou and Bousmalis)

Hill’s indignation at being grouped with the three nutballs of the prison is one of the funnier gags of the second episode, in fact. This new system actually makes it much easier to keep track of everyone, even if it is incredibly dehumanizing and all that crap.

The second season of Oz, unlike the first, is more about developing strong character arcs for the main players — and BOY do the main players go through some heavy shit this season. Rather than recap individual episodes this time around, I’ll cover the main storyline points, because that’s the way the show is written — as an going serial rather than separate episodes. Watching the whole season in sequence really gives you an appreciation for that. Beecher’s main storyline involves him going more insane and egging Schillinger on until a retaliatory plot is hatched via Nazi sympathizer Chris Keller. Sidenote: One of the things I really like about Oz is the way the cards are always laid out on the table at the very beginning. There’s generally no surprise swerves — you always know in advance who’s on what side, and the drama lays in figuring out how the other person is going to cope once they know. Keller’s “heel turn” at the end of the season would have been booked as a surprise in wrestling, but within the show there’s no dramatic advantage to having his allegiance with Schillinger be a surprise. We know that he’s a bad person, the question is whether he can find good within himself. Keller’s seduction of Beecher is more emotional than physical, and although he claims to be just doing it for Schillinger, by the end of the season questions are raised about what exactly he’s feeling for his victim. The payoff moment when Beecher finds out first hand what Keller’s plans for him are (foreshadowed by their wrestling matches earlier in the season) are one of the most gut-wrenchingly difficult scenes to watch, both for the physical pain endured by Beecher and the betrayal suffered. On the other hand, Beecher’s constant need to torment Schillinger while in his insane phase leaves him as less of a sympathetic character in the long run, so maybe he deserved it in one sense. He does have the coolest revenge moment of anyone in the series, however, when he refuses future regular Robson’s demands for a blowjob, in the most painful way possible. Ryan O’ Reilly’s big arc is also a doozy, as he grows his hair long again and then discovers that he has cancer — of the breast. His reaction of horror is more to having a “chick’s disease” than any real fear of dying. This sets up another MAJOR ongoing storyline, as he falls in love with Dr. Gloria Nathan and begins doing some very morally wrong things to prove that love to her. This in turn sets up the debut of one of the most complex and yet simple characters in the show: His brain-damaged brother, Cyril. Ryan actually becomes something of a better person as a result of this season, a rarity for any of the major characters in this show. The final big storyline for the year involves the mysterious death of scumf*ck Scott Ross during the riot, as an investigator from the government seems to think that Dianne shot him for revenge. The only problem is that no one in the entire prison — from the prisoners up to the governor himself — gives a shit that Ross is dead.

Those are just three of the big storylines covered in the awesome second season, and there’s tons more, as just about every major and minor character is involved somehow from start to finish with a variety of plots that are both interesting and resolved in a satisfactory way by the end of the year. It’s such a small thing, seemingly, but so few shows can pull it off as well as Tom Fontana does here while juggling an ever-changing cast of characters. Most would argue that the quality of the show dropped off pretty well from the end of the second season, and I wouldn’t disagree too strenuously, but this is the season that sets up all of the major plotlines that are still going on to this day and even if you missed the first season, it’s a terrific jumping-on point. Of course, to this day I still think Tom Fontana is full of shit when he says that Hill’s coffin escape was just a dream, but that’s another argument.

As always, be warned that Oz is NOT for a younger audience — it’s filled with GRAPHIC violence (a priest gets crucified on the floor in gruesome detail, for instance), sex, nudity and frequent swearing. Normally I’m not the kind of guy to warn people about that stuff, but this show is so skewed to the adult side that I feel obligated to do so.

If you enjoy the Sopranos and want something even MORE violent and filled with death and mayhem, this is the show for you.

The Video:

Here’s the weak point of this set, as the video varies WILDLY between crisp digital-quality and grainy, fuzzy gunk. I don’t know why there’s such a discrepancy, but one scene will be beautifully transferred, and the next will look like someone is using the 16x zoom feature on their DVD player, to the point where you can count individual pixels and grain on the film. It’s very distracting and I’m not sure if it’s a deliberate shooting choice to heighten the grimy look of the prison or just a bad transfer, but DVD is a very unforgiving medium and this transfer is proof of it. Be warned in advance.

The Audio:

Whereas the transfer isn’t so good, the 5.1 audio is a MAJOR improvement over season one’s release, as subwoofer action has been pumped up to the max for all the rumbles and thumps of the prison. Surrounds are in full effect during the music, as well, and it makes for a nicely claustrophobic feeling at the needed times. Check out the sound mix when Adebisi hears jungle drums in the season finale, for instance. A 2.0 mix is also available for those without Dolby Digital, and it’s pretty good, too.

The Extras:

Okay, just to get this out of the way, there is NO audio commentaries on this one. It’s listed as a feature everywhere, but it’s not advertised on the box and it’s not present on any episode. I don’t know if Fontana and Tergeson didn’t record one or it got pulled or what, but that was one of my favorite features of the first season and I’m sad to see it absent here. What you DO get is a 20-minute roundtable discussion from 1997 with the major cast members, and a 3 minute featurette from HBO. And that’s it, unfortunately. The roundtable discussion provides some funny moments but doesn’t add much insight, and the featurette is total fluff. Very disappointing.

The Ratings:

Film: *****

Video: *1/2

Audio: ****

Extras: *