“Oz”: Ten Years Later

With shows such as Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, premium cable network HBO has a deserved reputation for edgy, quality drama. But it was on this day ten years ago that the network premiered Oz, its first one-hour dramatic television series. Set within a maximum security prison somewhere in the United States, the prison drama broke boundaries with its violence, profanity and nudity, as well as with its diverse and multi-racial cast of strongly imagined characters. Tom Fontana, writer and executive producer for Oz, recently spoke with AfterElton.com about the show and its place in television history.

From the beginning, “this show’s about power”

Premiering before Will & Grace or Queer As Folk, and running until 2003, Oz would arguably go on to do better than either of them in showing the full spectrum of male sexuality. The drama convincingly portrayed the myriad ways sexuality could be expressed between men whether gay, bi or straight. It would also give viewers one of television’s most memorable male/male relationships in the long-running, powerful and complex romance between prisoners Chris Keller (played by Christopher Meloni) and Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen).

When Oz premiered, Fontana was simultaneously juggling another critically-acclaimed series, Homicide: Life on the Street which would have its own groundbreaking gay moment when Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), was outed as a bisexual in January 1998. However, Bayliss’ bisexuality never went beyond a few dates and discussions with co-workers. Fontana explained why the nature of Oz allowed him to go further in exploring the characters’ sexuality than on Homicide:

“The thing is with Homicide, you know, we did so little about the detectives’ personal lives, because what we really wanted was their characters to be revealed through their work. […] Whereas the dynamic of Oz always was — because this show’s about power — and so the element of sexuality as it relates to power… whether it’s straight, gay, bi, or whatever… always was in play, from the very beginning.”

Indeed, from the beginning, the show featured gay characters prominently. Some may have been on the traditional ‘gay man’ rung of the power ladder — namely, the bottom of the pecking order. Such was the case with first season character Billie Keane (Derrick Simmons), the effeminate brother of inmate Jefferson Keane (Leon), who needed protecting from the other inmates.

But later seasons also showed gay men who were unabashedly willing to assert themselves. Richie Hanlon (Jordan Lage), a gay prisoner who entered Oz in Season 2, quickly encountered sexual harassment from fellow prisoner Mark Mack (Leif Riddell), but was unwilling to take the abuse:

Mack: You’re a fag. You suck dick. So what’s the problem?
Hanlon: I suck the dicks I want to suck, so f*** you.

Being set in prison, however, the show also dealt frankly with the sexuality of prisoners who did not consider themselves gay, yet were driven into same-sex relations either through loneliness or through rape. One of the primary ways these themes were explored was through the character of Tobias Beecher. Beecher was a wealthy, middle-class lawyer, husband and father, who found himself in Oz (the nickname for the Oswald State Correctional Facility) after accidentally killing a girl while driving drunk.

Totally unequipped for prison life in the first season, Beecher fell prey to Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), the white supremacist leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in Oz. Schillinger’s homophobia did not prevent him from trying to rape any unprotected white man who came through the gates of the prison.

Beecher fought back from his initial “prag” (i.e. sexual slave) status, eventually establishing a level of independence from Schillinger, although the power struggle between the two men would continue till the end of the series.

Once free of Schillinger, though, Beecher also struggled with the loneliness that Fontana says was another central theme of the series:

“It wasn’t that I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, here’s an opportunity to show a lot of guys f***ing’, it was really an opportunity, for me, to talk about the loneliness, and how the loneliness, in anybody’s life, becomes compensated [for] […] That’s why in the first season I had the thing where [the governor] got rid of conjugal visits [for the prisoners], because I wanted the stakes to be intensified as opposed to there being this release.”

A love story emerges

Enter Chris Keller, a strapping, charismatic, blue-eyed, sexually ambiguous prisoner who became Beecher’s podmate in Episode 2:4. Keller supported Beecher through the news of his wife’s death, all while offering companionship, wrestling lessons and the apparent promise of a friendship with no agenda.

In a prison filled with cliques, power struggles and manipulation, Keller seemed like a godsend. The previously heterosexual Beecher was very quickly smitten — and within a few episodes, Beecher and Keller were exchanging declarations of love while kissing in the laundry room.

In reality, however, Keller was in league with Schillinger, and he eventually delivered Beecher over for a beating in which both his arms and legs were broken. About the men’s relationships and the betrayal, which occurred at the end of the second season, Fontana says: “That was as far as I knew the story.” [laughs] “I mean literally, that was as far as … So that what you discovered was that it was all a lie, that everything that Keller had done was a lie, and that was where in my head … not that I was gonna leave it, but that’s as far as I had in my head, about where it could go.”

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He says that seeing Meloni and Tergesen in a fake romance was what inspired him to make it a real one: “The Keller/Beecher thing really grew out of the dynamic between the two actors, Chris and Lee, in the sense that my original intention was simply for Keller to be a classic sexual predator, using the Beecher character. But the chemistry between the two actors onscreen was such that I went, ‘Well wait a minute, there’s more here and it’s much more interesting than anything that I would have conceived of.’ […] It was exciting to see the dynamic between them, so that’s why I stayed with that story in terms of Beecher ’s development as a character.”

Part of the chemistry between the two actors came from the extent to which they invested themselves in their roles, so that even in their unscripted moments they were believable as two men in love. In fact, over the next four seasons, some of their most memorable moments would be wordless: Keller casually running his hand over Beecher’s arm; the look in Beecher’s eyes when he goes in to visit Keller in hospital after he has been injured; Beecher anxiously running his fingers through his hair before going in to see Keller for the first time after a long separation. The way Keller pauses for a moment before turning around when Beecher says his name.

Love, destruction, sacrifice

It helped that as the storyline unfolded it was less a story ‘about’ sexual orientation than it was about the dual nature of any love: the desire to protect and care for someone versus the selfish desire to possess them at all costs. This conflict was particularly acute for the bisexual Keller, a prime manipulator whose relationships with men and women both inside and outside prison had been driven by a need to see if he could treat them badly and still get them to come back to him.

Aware of his own destructive tendencies in love, Keller struggled to attain the more noble aspects of sacrifice and selflessness. At the end of Season 4, he confesses to a crime that Beecher has committed in order to try and protect Beecher from Schillinger.

Fontana says: “What I thought would be interesting would be, if you take this guy who has been a sexual predator, and over the course of time, the lie of ‘I’m in love with Beecher’ becomes the truth of ‘I’m in love with Beecher’. And how does that affect [Keller] and soften him and make him come to a different kind of place? I mean it’s a classic love story in the sense that Beecher’s genuine love for Keller changed Keller as a person, and kind of freed him to the point where, going from being completely selfish, he could then be completely selfless. But even so, was he [really]?”

In other words, can a leopard truly change its spots?

Sent to a different prison to await trial, Keller tries to push Beecher away – particularly since he knows that Beecher may be up for parole. But by the beginning of Season 5, after Keller’s false confession has been discovered, Beecher is sent back to Oz. Throughout the sixth and final season, as Beecher once again has a chance at freedom, Keller becomes increasingly desperate and destructive in his efforts to keep Beecher with him.

Fontana says: “What I was going for was, what [Keller] said to [ Beecher ] in terms of ‘Run as far away from me as possible’ [at the end of Season 4], was a genuine act of love. Because I think he knew of his own obsession. And he knew that the obsession would lead to a terrible outcome. So his impulse was to say ‘OK, I’m gonna push you away’. But ultimately, you know, the love becomes the thing that he knows he has to have. So hopefully it’s about the complexity of love, because on the one hand, he loves Beecher enough to know that he’s bad for him. And yet on the other hand, he loves him so much, he has to [try and] destroy Beecher, in a way, destroy his freedom, in order to possess him.”

Despite the increasingly dark turn taken by the relationship, Fontana says: “I do think that they truly did love each other. And in the way that love can be both blissful and brutal. They loved each other fully, it wasn’t just hearts and flowers kind of love, it had all the bumps and grinds of a real relationship, and of an intense … you know, kind of primal relationship.”

Beecher and Keller’s unseen sex life

Keller and Beecher’s romance certainly ran the emotional gamut. And, pre-Queer As Folk, it may have been more fully-realized physically than any other male/male relationship on American television. But in a show that never flinched from showing violent rapes between men, as well as several fairly graphic (if aggressive) male/female couplings, it was striking that Beecher and Keller never got much beyond kisses.

Surprised when this is pointed out to him, Fontana states that the lack of a sex scene was “totally unconscious on my part”, and certainly not the result of any network censorship: “Yeah, no, HBO didn’t have any problems, HBO never told me don’t do anything. So it wasn’t HBO saying ‘Oh, Tom, please don’t show two men having loving sex.’ They didn’t … Nobody said that.”

He reflects: “I think [it was] because in my mind … I think that the sex that we did see, which was fairly violent — even in the case, like, in the first season when Edie Falco’s character [Diane Whittlesey] slept with Terry Kinney’s character [Tim McManus], it was not an attractive sex scene, it was a desperate sex scene. And to go back to what I was saying before, the show was really about power and the lack of power. And the sexuality and the violence were used as a prism for an examination of power. And so a soft and loving sex scene between two of the characters probably would have been counter to what was in my head about why I was showing any sex at all.

“I mean, if you think about it, what would a sex scene between [Beecher and Keller] have been like? I mean because they did love each other, it would have had a kind of … it would have had to be, like, nice sex. Which wasn’t part of the tapestry of the show, is I guess what I’m saying, which is why instinctively I guess I never went there.”

Kidding, he adds: “But — you know, f*** it, let’s go back and shoot the sex scenes between [Meloni and Tergesen]! They’d do it, those two clowns! They’re ready!”

He is probably correct in saying this. The relaxed responses of the two actors to questions about their same-sex storyline, along with their passionate onstage kiss at the 2000 GLAAD Media Awards, were part of what endeared them to gay fans.

On a show that also had a large straight fanbase, though, Fontana says that he never found himself pressured or criticized for the Beecher/Keller storyline: “The audience never seemed to indicate that, and the network never seemed to indicate that, and the reviewers never seemed to indicate that.”

Comfort through brutality

Part of what made the relationship more acceptable to straight male viewers, in particular, may have been the sheer brutality of the world that Oz depicted. It was difficult for them to sneer at Beecher and Keller as weak or “faggy” when, on a weekly basis, the characters were dealing with situations that most men, whether straight or gay, would struggle to survive.

The show also had a Brokeback Mountain-like quality of simply presenting you directly with the men’s raw experience, with no apologies or justifications offered for doing so. Where Will & Grace substituted Judy Garland jokes for sexuality, Oz took you straight to the heart of a dark, intense love affair, in a way that was hard to resist.

On IMDb.com, a female poster recalled watching Oz with her boyfriend, who shouted “No!” when he saw Beecher and Keller kiss. She thought he was reacting homophobically, but it turned out that he was shouting to Beecher: “Don’t take him back, you idiot! He broke both your arms and your legs!”

One of the interesting things about Oz was that it drew several actors with a rap/hip-hop background — not traditionally a community friendly to homosexuality. In the course of the show’s run, there were guest appearances from LL Cool J and Master P, as well as longer-lasting turns from performers such as Method Man, and Lord Jamar of the group Brand Nubian. According to Fontana, however, no-one on the show ever voiced a complaint about the Beecher/Keller storyline or the show’s gay content — at least not to him:

“Oh, you mean in terms of an actor who wasn’t involved in that story going, like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you’re doing that’? Um … the truth is I can’t answer that, because if they had I probably would have fired them.” He laughs. “And they probably knew that. Because … you know, the whole … What was wonderful about the cast of Oz was that they got the whole thing, they understood the whole thing, and so … I mean if anybody had a problem with it, nobody articulated it to me. But like I said they probably were afraid to, because they knew I’d get pissed off. Because I don’t think it’s right for people to be criticizing other people’s storylines.”

Getting to heaven from Oz

Within the show, other people whom you might have expected to be against the Beecher/Keller romance were the characters of Sister Peter Marie Reimondo (played by Rita Moreno), and Father Ray Mukada (played by out actor B.D. Wong), a Catholic nun and priest respectively, who served the prison population. In fact, both characters were sympathetic to the relationship, and even went out of their way to arrange for the lovers to meet. Speaking about their attitudes, Fontana (who served as Executive Producer on the 2004 documentary In Good Conscience, a film about the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality) says that:

“The nature of the priests and nuns who work in prisons is very different from what those clowns in the Vatican do. And the American Catholic Church is … once you get to that level of people who are committed socially to, whether it’s prisons or whatever they’re committed to, they don’t make those kind of judgments. I know a lot of activist priests and a lot of activist nuns, and they wouldn’t be in those jobs if they suddenly were trying to be dictatorial about, ‘Oh, homosexuality is this,’ or … the ones that I know.

“Now maybe there are people out there who are much more hard-nosed, but the ones that I know and the ones that I met [while doing research for Oz], specifically the people in the prisons, were really very open and loving, and understanding of the loneliness and the fear that exists in prison, and how that can generate different kinds of relationships. So, for me it was never an issue.”

None of this is to say that Beecher and Keller never met with any disapproval in pursuing their relationship. Kareem Said (played by Eamonn Walker), the leader of the Muslim prisoners in Oz, was horrified by homosexuality — a fact which sometimes put a strain on his otherwise close friendship with Beecher. Many of the prisoners had the predictable macho dismissive attitude about ‘fags’.

At the same time, the Beecher/Keller romance did fulfill the ideal of a same-sex couple on television whose relationship was open and acknowledged by everyone around them, who did not spend time agonizing over their sexuality, and whose issues as a couple were mostly unrelated to orientation.

Neither of the characters could ever have been described as role models. Their relationship was born partly out of restriction and loneliness, and it might never have happened outside of Oz. But in the way that relationship was written and staged, it always included an element of genuine love.

The relationship is ultimately a doomed one, but that love was evidenced from the very first introduction of Keller under the heading “Boy meets boy”, when the camera pans over Beecher and Keller’s faces as one of the show’s characters reads a love poem, to the promise that Keller makes Beecher as he is led off at the end of Season 4:

Keller: I’ll see you.
Beecher: When?
Keller: Back here. Or in heaven.
Beecher: You really think we’re gonna get into heaven?
Keller: Ah … you and me together? God doesn’t have the balls to keep us out.

Get Oz on DVD from www.logoonline.com or watch re-runs on HBO Zone.