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Views and Reviews: Oz

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The Wizardry of Oz

 

I never knew how sweet two men kissing could be until I saw My Beautiful Laundrette. That moment when Daniel Day-Lewis, sexy in his punked-out, two-toned hair, clasped his bony hands around Gordon Warnecke’s smooth brown head and drew their mouths together. I almost expired the first time I saw it. Not from the eroticism, but the emotion. It was the first time I’d seen men locking lips with that kind of thirsty, delicate ardor — I felt it in my heart before it reached any other organ.

    
I’ve waited a long time to see a same-sex kiss that tender, that soulful, and mostly, I’ve waited in vain. Last season, though, without warning, the wait ended. I watched two actors named Chris Meloni and Lee Tergesen wrap arms, close eyes and lay down the finest buss this side of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

    
Okay, there’s a wrinkle. The actors were playing two convicts (Chris and Toby), and their romance was the tiniest of grace notes in the great roar of Oz, the throat-slashing, stomach-churning prison drama that splashes across HBO screens every week. Oz is short for Oswald Correctional Facility, and if you ever thought living in a maximum-security prison would be kinda neat once you got the hang of it, Oz is the show to set you straight. Watch just half an hour, and you’ll never so much as jaywalk again.

    
Hanging, stabbing, shooting, beating, poisoning, even a slow steady diet of ground-up glass . . . Oz is everything you wanted to know about hurting people but were afraid to watch. If you had seen, say, the closing episode of the second season, you would have learned how to crucify child molesters, separate prison guards from their eyes and break an inmate’s limbs in under thirty seconds. Hunky Chris was the co-perpetrator of that last act, and his victim was sometime boyfriend, Toby — not exactly an act to inspire long-term trust. But that was a pedicure compared to the travails Toby’s been through this season. His children were kidnapped under orders of the Nazi thug Schillinger, and when that proved insufficiently alarming, the kidnappers sent Toby his son’s hand in a brown-paper parcel. Not surprisingly, the boy turned up dead a couple of episodes later, prompting Toby to retaliate by putting out a Mafia hit on Schillinger’s son.

    
At times, there’s something almost risible about the Old Testament violence of Oz — you half expect to hear claps of thunder and see “Special Guest Sacrifice” placards on the visiting actors. And it does seem to me that a real-world prison with this kind of mortality count would be shut down or, at the very least, subjected to external inquiry. (Not in Oz-land, though: the warden gets invited to run for lieutenant governor.) As best I can make out through the lattice of my fingers, creator and writer Tom Fontana is trying to create a Hobbesian-Nietschzean universe, where power is the defining — in fact, the sole — principle, where the only pleasure comes from watching hegemony shift from week to week. So it is that Hispanic gang leader Hernandez can go from executioner to executed in the course of two minutes, and African cobra Adebisi can jump from gibbering cokehead one season to cock-of-the-walk next, complete with curtains on his cell and a rolling stream of half-willing fellators. It’s a zero-sum existence, and Oz is, for the most part, a zero-sum show: it’s men behaving badly and still worse. You have to squint your eyes to catch the passing signs of grace: the affectionate by-play between Ryan O’Reily and his brain-damaged brother, Cyri; the melancholy middle-distance gaze of longtime lifer Rebadow and, of course, the aforementioned nookie between Chris and Toby.

    
That last feature, I admit, is what keeps me watching week to week: Oz is the only TV show where a fella can see other fellas getting it on. And don’t tell me about those split seconds of onscreen kissing on Will and Grace and Dawson’s Creek. The former was a deliberate joke, the latter an unintentional one. And don’t enumerate all the gay men who’ve been popping up on network TV — they’re still in their bedroom slippers, waiting for the heroines to get back from their dates.

    
No, the only men who can practice outlaw sex on TV are outlaws, and I suppose that should piss me off, but I have to believe the penitentiary backdrop is what lets Oz go further than other shows. Most Americans, after all, can tolerate the idea of sodomy behind bars. They can look at Oz and tell themselves the sex is just another form of violence: junkyard dogs marking their territories. But those of us who’ve been following Toby and Chris know that Tom Fontana has done something more radical. He has depicted (in fits and starts) a complex and evolving and equal sexual relationship between two consenting men. He has made it clear that, in a setting of deep brutality, men can find even deeper reservoirs within each other — not simply because women are absent but because they themselves are present to new possibilities.

    
It may not be Genet, but it’s a start. And Toby and Chris may not be the best gay role models in the world — one has bitten off a man’s penis and killed a prison guard, the other is a serial murderer of gay men — but they’ll do until the next thing comes along. They’ll do until gay sex can serve out its time and walk in the probational light of mainstream TV. Until then, all hail the great and mighty Oz.

©2000
Louis Bayard and Nerve.com, Inc.