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The end of 'Oz'

HBO series has finale Sunday

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

Tom Fontana created the world of "Oz."

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Gang rape. Sodomy. Crucifixion. Immolation. Poisoning. Stabbing.

Just another day in the life for the inmates of "Oz." But not for long.

After six seasons, on Sunday the fictional maximum-security Oswald State Penitentiary at the center of HBO's hard-edged dramatic series will be having its final lockdown.

"Oz" has never shied away from the darker sides of human behavior, and Tom Fontana, who created the show, says that was the point. The initial intent was "really to go to a place that had never been explored in fictional television, and tell as many good stories as I could possibly tell," he said.

Despite his record with "gritty" television series -- Fontana also co-created "Homicide: Life on the Street," and had a hand in "St. Elsewhere" -- Fontana had no particular axe to grind with the American penal system at the outset. But, he added, "as the years have gone by I have become more radicalized in the sense that I still believe criminals should be in prisons, but I'm not 100 percent sure that this system is really solving any of the problems related to crime in our country."

Still, it wasn't his primary concern to make political statements. The emphasis was on telling the prisoners' stories and developing their characters, a tall order for a show with a cast the size of "Oz." The HBO Web site lists at least 26 current characters, with many more having bitten the dust over the years.

Fontana himself speculated that he wrote some 75 percent of the material for all six seasons, though not in an episode-by-episode sequence. "I'd write one character's story for all eight episodes, then the next character, while one of the other writers may be working on pieces of another character's story."

Developing the storytelling

Harold Perrinau played the wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill, "Oz" observer and "author" of a new book on the show.

The writers had a lot of help from the cast.

Harold Perrinau, who plays Augustus Hill, the wheelchair-bound narrator of the series, described how the writers and actors were able to work together to develop the myriad story lines that permeate "Oz."

"I would try and make sense of each new piece of information as it came along," Perrinau explained by telephone from Los Angeles, California, "and we'd work it into the character. And fortunately there was never anything that he [Fontana] said that we couldn't work in. ... Augustus Hill is really a creation of Tom Fontana and me trying to bring it to life."

Augustus Hill is the one character from the series maintaining his voice after the show leaves the air. A recently published book, "Oz: Behind These Walls -- The Journal of Augustus Hill" (HarperCollins), provides a history of Oz through Hill's eyes. Hill was the one character allowed to be pure observer in the Emerald City, as the prison's experimental unit was called.

The mechanics of the storytelling have evolved with the show over the years, emphasizing the prisoners' lives inside Oz rather than the crimes they committed to land there, which are told in stylized video flashbacks.

"I'd do the crime flashbacks when I felt it was important to kick that character's story up," Fontana said. "A lot of times what I wanted to do was to say, 'This is who you think this guy is, the stereotype that you have of him,' by showing the crime, and over the course of the series reveal other aspects of him."

According to Perrinau, this process was of great assistance to the actors playing Fontana's characters.

"It actually made things a lot easier. I think even in life what someone does to go to jail is secondary to what's going on at the moment. What you did to get there isn't as important as knowing how you're going to get through this day. For me, plotting how to survive the day was easier than figuring out how I keep an impression of me being a cop killer," he said.

The system was flexible enough to handle the shifting cast, as well as the evolving careers of the actors, Fontana added.

Developing the storytelling

"For example, Adewale [Akinnuoye-Agbaje], who played Adebisi, he wanted to go off and make movies," he recalled. "I didn't want to kill that character, but it was a necessity due to the actor's wanting to move on, rather than me saying, 'This is the end of the story.' But I did have enough warning. He and I had talked about it before the beginning of that season, so I was able to write towards his death."

Moving on

Fontana also used "Oz" to extend the boundaries of television violence. There were rape scenes, racists of all stripes, brutal murders, pretty much everything you'd expect in a maximum-security prison ... and much of what you didn't expect anywhere.

He even came up with a new word -- "prag" -- a blunt term for a prisoner's sex slave.

"I made it up off the top of my head," Fontana laughed when asked about the origin of the unfortunate sobriquet. "At this point I can't even remember why I came up with that term. It just popped into my head one day and made me laugh."

That might be some of the only laughter the grim "Oz" produced. Certainly, Fontana may be looking for something lighter now that the show is leaving the air. At the very least, he's looking for something different.

"I think what happens in this business is that you get known for doing a certain kind of thing, and I'm known for doing 'gritty TV',"he said. "I feel that's limiting. The shows I have in development may or may not relate to crime, but what I'm trying to keep myself open to explore the stories I want to tell. God forbid I do another prison show."

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