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The Jail Special

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After six years and many a salad tossed, “Oz” goes off the air with a near-brilliant finale

By Stephen Silver

The final episode of HBO’s groundbreaking prison drama “Oz” aired on Sunday, and while the show’s sixth season had been generally lackluster, the writers and cast came up waith a finale that was as close to perfect as an “Oz” episode can get.

The show did just about the best it could in wrapping up the stories of each character. Yes, many will complain about Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergeson) ending the series without being paroled again, but I believe Beecher’s resolution was perfectly consistent with what’s happened to his character (the Job of “Oz”) for six years: “Same old story,” he said after landing again behind bars, “I get fucked in the ass.”

While the show abandoned its clever “dead prisoner narrator” cameos after six episodes (and without an appearance by the Greatest of All Time, Adebesi), it returned the focus at the end to narrating ghost Augustus Hill (the wonderful Harold Perrineau) who, more than anyone else, gave “Oz” its gravitas.

Now I’ve made it very clear in the past that I don’t make a practice of rooting for specific characters to die when I watch TV. But I made a once-in-a-lifetime exception for J.K. Simmons’ Vern Schillinger on the final “Oz”- regardless what else happened in the episode, I was prepared to give it a positive review provided that Nazi bastard Vern met a painful, bloody end. Vern was indeed “shanked” (I’m gonna miss that word), though I practically jumped when Simmons showed up last night as a guest star on “Law & Order.”

Speaking of bloody ends (stop!), I suggest all those “Sopranos”-watchers who complain about the lack of “whackings” give “Oz” a shot, as by my count 25 different characters were killed in the eight episodes of season 6. Yet somehow Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson) was awarded a “Correctional Society Lifetime Achievement Award” in the penultimate episode. Any warden in real life who presided over 25 (mostly unsolved) prisoner deaths in eight weeks would be fired, not rewarded, but then “Oz” was never about realism. (It should go without saying, of course, that Warden Glynn was himself shanked and killed at said awards banquet).

“Oz” is, above all, an acquired taste, and I didn’t acquire it until around this time last year, when I began devouring the reruns. It’s a true triumph of writer/producer Tom Fontana’s creativity that a show that has featured such material as frequent full-frontal male nudity, spoon sodomy, and a near-complete lack of women or heterosexual romance could be so popular with such a wide cross-section of people.

So I salute an excellent show, on its passing into the night. Not only is “Oz” the best HBO show to go off the air this year (better than “Arli$$” and “Mind of the Married Man”!), but who knows how many potential criminals it scared straight. Some may give credit for the ’90s crime drop to the economy, or Rudy Giuilani, but I say it was “Oz.”

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About Stephen Silver

  • Mike

    I wonder if Mr. Silver is aware that JK Simmons has been part of the Law & Order for years. It wasn’t a special guest appearance as he stated.