Priests and paedophiles, families and fragmentation: Oz

“It’s No Place Like Home.” Thus reads the tagline of the transgressive prison show Oz, which premiered on HBO in 1997. The title and the tagline of the show are naturally ironic, alluding to the famous fairy tale-musical The Wizard of Oz (1939), and hinting at the rough and transgressive sensibility of Oz, which is far removed from Kansas, let alone a happy-go-lucky musical shot in three-strip technicolor and released in the 1930s. When Oz came out, it constituted a shock to the American television system with its graphic portrayal of sex, homosexuality, violence and decay in the American prison system.[1] Its tagline, however, could also be a reference to HBO (Home Box Office), the premium cable channel which had produced and chosen to air Oz as their first ever original drama series. HBO had existed since the 1972, but, following a legal dispute with FCC in the late-1970s, HBO ventured into original programming in the 1990s, and with a triad of shows, Oz (1997-2003), Sex and the City (1998-2004) and The Sopranos (1999-2007), they introduced a type of niche-oriented television drama which had not been possible on network television. This kind of niche-oriented TV drama would also include adult-oriented programming, which, in itself, was a trademark of arthouse cinema that, along with the well-known film directors, could help attract famous movie stars to the television medium.

This move from HBO into original programming would soon become a central factor in the ever-changing TV landscape, and the slogan of HBO (at the time) would come to indicate the channel’s attempt to distance itself from traditional or stereotypical notions of television: “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.”[2] If the “not TV”- slogan of HBO seemed to echo the tagline of the drama series Oz, then the 1982-1983-slogan was even more similar to the aforementioned tagline, saying “There’s No Place Like HBO.”

According to Marc Leverette, HBO has been part of a “not TV industry,” trying to lure urban, educated viewers by promoting itself as a producer of unconventional, high-end television drama.[3] As Amanda D. Lotz puts it, “HBO thrives by defying program standards that appeal to the mass audience, and succeeds by exploiting limited access as the means to acceptance as high (or at least higher) elite art.”[4] Since its venture into original programming in 1997, HBO has come to signify “quality TV,” and some have even argued that we are now living in a golden age of cable television, whether a prolongation of the second golden age or a new golden age in and of itself. As Ray Solley, head of cable development consultants at the Solley group, argues: “There is a feeling about HBO that when the name goes on a program, you at least know that it’s going to be – whatever genre – the top of the line.”[5]





Apart from its graphic portrayal of violence, sex and perversity, Oz is mostly known for its use of an embedded on-screen narrator (Augustus Hill played by Harold Perrineau) – a black man seated in a wheelchair and talking directly to the audience. This stylistic signature, which is also used in Harron’s episode, “Animal Farm”, functions as a sort of Brechtian or Godardian type of defamiliarization, and it lends a certain element of formalism to an otherwise realistic show. In general, the show would become known for its violent content and its depraved characters, and stylistically it would employ extreme angles, wide lenses and expressive colors and lighting. The gritty realism of the content, in other words, was often juxtaposed by a heavily expressive and intensified style.

In Harron’s episode, from the second season, we follow different characters and plot arcs, and three characters and storylines are particularly typical of Mary Harron’s oeuvre. One storyline deals with Robert Sippel (David Lansbury), a religious inmate who was convicted after confessing that he had molested a 14-year-old boy named Frances Hansell, and that storyline touches upon a classic theme in the works of Mary Harron: The fluid boundary between righteousness and sin, virtue and vice. Think only of the vivid explorations of normalcy, transgression and lunacy in I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho or the interesting meditation on religion and pornography in the lesser-known biopic The Notorious Bettie Page (2005).

The story of Robert Sippel, priest turned pedophile, touches upon a general question of sexuality and transgression that is often found in the productions of Mary Harron, and the name of the molested boy seems to allude to the classic fairytale about Hänsel und Gretel (1812). In the original story, two children are lured into a house constructed of cake and confectionary by an old and treacherous witch, and in Oz the classic fairy tale is turned into a realistic, yet equally nightmarish, story about an adolescent boy who is molested by a seemingly trustworthy man. A man of God, no less.

Another storyline in Harron’s episode is centered on Ryan O’Reily, played by Dean Winters, who also played a part in Homicide. After being separated from his brother, Cyril, who has recently killed Gloria Nathan’s brother, Ryan is reunited with Cyril. This storyline, blending elements of comedy, raw realism and melodrama, touches upon another central theme in the works of Mary Harron: The deconstruction of the family and the redefinition of home. The two O’Reilys are being separated, torn apart, but as they reunite – as Cyril comes “home” – their reunion spells a total redefinition of both family values and “home”. Cyril and Ryan are reunited in prison after Cyril has killed another person’s brother, and in that sense the reunion of the two O’Reilys is predicated on the destruction of another family: the Nathans.

A similar thing could be said of the Rob Rebadow arc, which is another central storyline in Harron’s episode. Rebadow’s grandson is dying of leukemia, and hoping to grant him his final wish (to go to Disneyland) Rob Rebadow gets money from the other inmates. Using a subtle montage technique, Harron illustrates the interconnections of vice and virtue – money changing hands between different inmates in order to help a dying child and bridge the gap between him and his estranged grandfather – and she shows us how Rebadow is trying to mend the wounds of his biological family by acquiring help from his new family: The other prisoners.

Fontana’s show is often mentioned as the starting point of the cable-revolution, what is sometimes described as the third golden age in American television, and Harron’s episode has been well-received and has an 8,3 score on IMDb.[6]

Vice, virtue and vendetta: Homicide

The themes that Harron explored in her episode of Oz are also prevalent in her episode from the groundbreaking police procedural Homicide – a largely episodic series that was based on a journalistic book by creator David Simon and influenced by another groundbreaking cop show: Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-1987). In Harron’s episode of Homicide, called “Sins of the Father”, she uses flashbacks, handheld camera and symbolic non-diegetic music. The use of handheld camera and the overall visual aesthetic were hardly a Harronesque feature, but were more likely to reflect the show’s in-house style (which was already established when Harron became attached as an episode director). The thematic and symbolic use of non-diegetic music, however, might well be seen as a directorial trademark, especially when looking at this episode in a retrospective light.               

Harron’s episode opens on a scene of the two detectives and partners, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) – a character that also appeared in an episode of Law and Order (NBC, 1990-2010). “You had dinner with a guy,” Frank says to his partner, adding a sceptical line: “That redefines dinner for me.” Tim replies by referring to a conversation they have had in the past, a conversation about vice and virtue and the Jungian understanding of shadow selves. Frank does not remember the specific interchange, but as we cut to a flashback, shot with a slight blue filter, we hear the entire monologue:

I’m saying that you, Tim Bayliss, you’ve got a darkness inside of you. You’ve got to know the darker, uglier sides of yourself. You’ve got to recognize them, so they’re not constantly sneaking up on you. You’ve got to love them because they’re part of you, because along with your virtues they make you who you are. Virtue isn’t virtue unless it slams up against vice. So, consequently, your virtue isn’t real virtue until it’s been tested. Tempted.

Inspired by Frank’s philosophical rant (as Tim calls it), Tim has apparently chosen to explore his own sexuality, not feeling the need to adhere to any given norms or notions of masculinity defined by society or the police force. “So, you’re saying I’m responsible for your confusion,” Frank asks. Tim looks tellingly at his partner and replies promptly, “I’m not confused. I’m finding out.”

This opening sequence introduces one of the main storylines of Harron’s episode, but it also, almost seamlessly, connects the story of Tim Bayliss to the central arc of this particular episode: A murder case related to questions of race and heritage.[7] As the episode progresses, we learn that a person by the name of Martin Ridenour has been killed, and gradually we come to understand that we are dealing with an act of vendetta. In a trope known from Icelandic sagas and classic gangster movies, an African-American man (Dennis Rigby), inspired by Frederic Douglass and Malcolm X, has chosen to avenge his ancestor Zephus Rigby, who was once enslaved by an ancestor of Martin Ridenour. Thus, Dennis Rigby has chosen to bullwhip and hang Martin Ridenour – as if he were a mere shadow of his Confederate ancestry – and Rigby’s vendetta is an example of the conflicting ideas of family in the works of Harron. Rigby is trying to defend his family name by avenging his dead ancestor, but in doing so he is, himself, destroying a family who has no direct relation to the acts that he is trying to avenge. If he is trying to reconstruct his family history, he does so by deconstructing another family (the Ridenour family), and if he is trying to alter or rewrite history, he is, in fact, repeating it. ”You killed an innocent man over something his long dead ancestor did to your long dead ancestor,” the police officers ask. “He had an infant son, and that boy is going to grow up not knowing his father, never knowing what came before his father. But he’s gonna know your name, Dennis…”

At the end of the episode, we hear a symbolic version of Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man” (1965), tying together the different shots in a thematic and elliptical montage. The use of montage editing and African-American music reflect the themes of the episode while subtly introducing one of Harron’s most established trademarks: The symbolic, ironic or even contrapuntal use popular music and editing (which is also a crucial part of American Psycho). Harron’s episode of Homicide adheres to many of the stylistic conventions established by the show’s creators, e.g. handheld camera, non-linear narration and location shooting. But if we look closely, we can also see the ‘Harronesque touch’ in the themes of sexuality, family codes and crises, normalcy and perversion and in the use of montage editing, popular music and melodramatic dialogue scenes.

 


Andreas Halskov (b. 1981) holds an MA in Film Studies from Copenhagen University. Halskov is a lecturer in Media Studies at Aarhus University, and he works as a film/TV expert in different media and as a curator of film historical screenings at Cinemateket in Copenhagen and Øst for Paradis in Aarhus, besides being an editor of the scholarly film journal 16:9. Halskov has published numerous articles in journals like Kosmorama, Series, Short Film Studies, International Journal of Digital Television and Blue Rose Magazine, and he has co-written and edited four Danish anthologies on American television (Fjernsyn for viderekomne, Turbine, 2011), the Oscars (Guldfeber, Turbine, 2013), audiovisual comedy (Helt til grin, VIA Film & Transmedia, 2016) and tendencies in the modern streaming landscape (Streaming for viderekomne, VIA Film & Transmedia, 2019) Finally, he has written a monograph on David Lynch, co-written a book about vampire films and series and written two peer-reviewed books about modern TV drama (TV Peaks: Twin Peaks and Modern Television Drama, University  Press of Southern Denmark, 2015) and serialization (Remakes, sequels og serialisering, Samfundslitteratur, 2019). An English book about David Lynch will be published in 2018/2019, as will an interview-based book about sound design in film and television, and he has contributed to a British anthology on Global TV Horror (eds. Lorna Jowett & Stacey Abbott, University of Wales Pres). Finally, he has co-created a five-part documentary series about the American TV landscape (Serierejser/TV Travels, VES/HBO Nordic, 2019).

 

Footnotes:

[1] For more on this, see Halskov, Andreas & Højer, Henrik (2011), “Kunsten ligger i nichen: ’The HBO Playbook’,” Kosmorama #248, pp. 37-46, online: http://video.dfi.dk/Kosmorama/magasiner/248/kosmorama248_037_artikel2.pdf, and Højer, Henrik (2017), “It’s Not TV. It’s Art-TV,” 16:9, February 21. Online: http://www.16-9.dk/2017/02/its-not-tv-its-art-tv/.

[2] Engelstad, Audun (2011), “It’s Not TV – or Is It?”, 16:9, February. Online: http://www.16-9.dk/2011-02/side11_inenglish.htm.

[3] Leverette, Marc (2007), “Introduction: The Not-TV Industry,” in Leverette, Marc et al. (eds.), It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era. London: Routledge, p. 13.

[4] Lotz, Amanda (2003), “Why Isn’t It TV? Post-Network Television Economics and Evaluating HBO Texts,”, quoted in Santos, Avi, “Para-Television and Discourses of Distinction,” in Leverette, Marc et al. (eds.) (2008), It’s Not TV, p. 33.

[5] Grego, M. (2002), “Feared,Yet Respected,” Variety (Special on HBO), November 4, A1-A2, A5.

[6]  Cf. Nielsen, Jakob Isak et al. (ed.), Fjernsyn for viderekomne – De nye amerikanske tv-serier. Aarhus: Turbine, 2011.

[7] The show has a so-called murder of the week-formula, but the characters develop across different episodes and seasons, thus blending elements from episodic shows and serialized television drama.