Michael Abernethy

No other fiction show has offered such a frighteningly realistic look inside our nation's prisons or so openly debated their moral and social obligations.


Airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET
Cast: Ernie Hudson, Terry Kinney, Rita Moreno, B. D. Wong, Kirk Acevedo, Lee Tergeson, J. K. Simmons, Harold Perrineau, MuMs, Dean Winters, Eamonn Walker, Chuck Zito
Display Artist: Tom Fontana, Jim Finnerty, Barry Levinson
Network: HBO
Creator: Barry Levinson

How far would you go to survive? Would you lie? Steal? Sell drugs? Would you give a blowjob to a man you despised? Could you murder a man you didn't even know to prevent another from murdering you? Is saving your life worth spending the remainder of it in a 9X6 cell with no windows and virtually no human contact?

If not, you wouldn't last a day in the Oswald State Correctional Facility, known among its inmates as "Oz." It's also the fictional site of HBO's longest running dramatic series, Oz (now in its sixth and final season), and one of television's most explicitly violent and sexual programs.

But as any long-term viewer can attest, Oz is not about sex and violence. It is about betrayal, brotherhood, fear, frustration, redemption, and retribution. It's also about death. Over the first five seasons, some 50 characters have died, most horrifically. (Executive Producer Tom Fontana jokes that he is ending the series this year because he has run out of ways to kill people.) Other characters have been crippled, branded, maimed, blinded, and tortured. Many of the inmates have been outright raped; others have "willingly" engaged in sexual acts to appease those in power -- guards as well as prisoners.

As the series comes to its end, some viewers may be wondering whether the writing staff will forgo the sex and violence for resolution and redemption. The answer is, so far, no. Fontana originally planned to end the series two years ago when he lost his lease on the studio where Oz was filmed. His first idea involved an explosion that partially destroyed the prison, a plot device that eventually became the cliffhanger for season four, as a new studio was found and the series was revived.

Now, it appears that Oz will end much as it began -- in the middle. In the first three episodes of this season, the series has provided no hint of an overarching resolution. New issues, characters, and storylines have been introduced -- and the series is known for carrying plotlines not just through multiple episodes, but over years.

So, the question becomes not what so much what will happen, but how will Oz be remembered? For one thing, it has raised timely and timeless sociological questions in a format that crosses freely from realism to the surreal. Certainly, Oz is not the first tv series to show life in prison, and numerous films have been set inside U.S. correctional units. However, no other fiction show has offered such a frighteningly realistic look inside our nation's prisons or so openly debated their moral and social obligations.

While the majority of us will never experience the terror of prison, we all live in a society riddled with crime. Many debates have centered on what role our penal system plays -- in stopping or perpetuating it. What are prisons' responsibilities? To punish lawbreakers? To lock up "undesirable elements"? To rehabilitate offenders? And how might any of these goals be achieved?

Oz examines this difficult dilemma by juxtaposing two sections of the prison. "Emerald City" is an experimental unit that provides prisoners with alternatives to sitting in small cells all day. They have access to educational programs, sporting contests, and artistic endeavors. In contrast to Emerald City is Gen Pop (general population), which is more like a traditional prison environment, with few options provided to keep prisoners out of trouble.

In addition to exploring the question of which environment best serves the needs of inmates, the series raises current moral, political, and legal issues: should we execute the mentally ill or retarded? What role can religion or psychiatry play in helping prisoners find "the right path"? Is it fair to ask prisoners to serve as human guinea pigs for medical experiments? Can and should businesses operate out of prisons with inmates serving as cheap labor? And, at what point does punishment become inhumane?

To frame such complex matters, the show offers narrator/inmate Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau). Though he was killed at the end of last season, Hill has continued to narrate, though now he shares that responsibility with other dead inmates. Each narrator highlights a particular, though broad, theme for each show -- God, Death, Communication, etc. -- quoting philosophers, poets, politicians, songs, and movies. The dead inmates walk among and talk to the living, although the living remain unresponsive. The prison has become a disco, a cemetery, a war zone, among other things, as the narrator elucidates that week's theme. Often, startling images and photographs flash behind the narrator as he or she speaks. One narrator this season didn't speak at all, but sat and played the cello as Hill spoke.

As this innovative approach to storytelling suggests, Oz's greatest strength is its consistently excellent writing. Head writer Bradford Winters (whose brothers, Dean and Scott, play inmates Ryan and Cyrill O'Reilly) drafts gripping storylines that revolve around a diverse cast of compelling characters. Oz has been accused by one reviewer of being "Melrose Prison," due to the fact that characters are continually shifting their alliances, in much the same manner that soap opera characters are perpetually switching romantic attachments.

However, as one former prison inmate and fellow Oz fan told me, "That's what it's like, man. Just like that. Only it doesn't all happen that fast." He insists that what is heard in Oz is what can be heard in any prison, and that the alliances that rule Oswald -- the Aryan brotherhood, the Latinos, the Blacks, the Italians, the Muslims -- are found in most prisons in this country.

The show's other, less realistic, aspects are equally worthy. Other series have been surreal (Twin Peaks, Dr. Who), while others have debated current issues (The West Wing, the Law & Orders). But Oz distinguishes itself through its innovative structures, images, and language. Imaginary sequences don't so much propel plot or develop characters as they explore themes. And most often, these themes -- whether broad (death) or specific (sexual abuse by the clergy) -- cannot be resolved.

Many issue-oriented series come with soapboxes, on which characters stand to tell us what to think. Oz lays out an issue and opposing viewpoints, then leaves us to decide. This is not to suggest that the series does not provide any resolution to its storylines. However, these are difficult, messy, and often contrary to what viewers may have wanted to see.

Some might argue that Oz's greatest contribution is that it opened the door for other explicitly violent or sexual programs, such as The Sopranos and Queer as Folk. But Oz's distinctive storytelling has been more acutely groundbreaking. Viewers can consider themselves blessed to have had six years inside Oz.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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