Oz: The Complete Fourth Season (DVD)
The heightened reality of Oz
remains consistently engrossing in the fourth season of HBO's volatile prison drama. All 16 episodes were written or cowritten by series creator Tom Fontana, and are bookended by the wisely sardonic observations of paraplegic prisoner Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), whose terse, philosophical ruminations about life in "Oz" give the series its literate edge. The 2000-2001 season finds Oz in the wake of racial warfare; tensions remain high among the factions that make the "Em City" cell block a hotbed of seething animosity among the skinhead Aryans led by Shillinger (J.K. Simmons); Muslim splinter groups led by Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker), the fearsome Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Supreme Allah (Lord Jamar); and the resident Mafia, Latinos, and lowlifes who make up Em City's embroiled population of newcomers, hard-timers, and death-row inmates. Unit Administrator McManus (Terry Kinney) sets up a centrally located penalty cage for anyone who causes outbreaks of violence (which are shockingly frequent and frequently lethal), but loses his job in a mid-season plot development that spins Oz
into a maelstrom of internal politics and brutal retaliation.
Through it all, Fontana and his collaborators (including guest director Steve Buscemi) maintain impressive focus on dozens of finely drawn characters. Laced with homosexual tension, jealousies, religious fervor, and threats of betrayal, the season's most compelling conflicts involve impulsive killer Ryan O'Reily (played with cagey menace by Dean Winters) and his brain-damaged half-brother Cyril (Scott William Winters); and the manipulative Keller (Christopher Meloni) and his prison lover Toby Beecher (Lee Tergesen), a lawyer and convicted murderer whose survival seems perpetually uncertain. Tenuous order is barely maintained by warden Glynn (Ernie Hudson) and Catholic counselor "Sister Pete" (Rita Moreno), but the bulk of Oz's fourth season is devoted to chaos, as shifting loyalties keep all prisoners (and all viewers) in a state of anxious anticipation. The criminal histories of many inmates are shown in flashback, and one death-row scenario (involving guest star Kathryn Erbe) reaches its inevitable conclusion. By the time episode 16 ends with a blazing inferno, you'll be wondering about the fate of Rev. Cloutier (Luke Perry) and anxious for the tumultuous events of season 5. (Commentary accompanies two episodes: Fontana and Moreno offer informative anecdotes on "You Bet Your Life," but the Fontana/Winters/Tergesen commentary on "Famous Last Words" is raucously undisciplined and for hardcore Oz fans only.)--Jeff Shannon