TV Dungeon: Oz

(1997 – 2003, USA)

Creator: Tom Fontana
Cast: Ernie Hudson, Harold Perrineau, Lee Tergesen, J.K. Simmons, Dean Winters, Terry Kinney, Eamonn Walker, Kirk Acevedo

6 Seasons (56 Episodes)

Welcome to Oz! A high security federal prison, called Oswald State Correctional Facility (‘Oz’ in slang). This series is set entirely in a section of this nightmarish prison called Emerald City, run by its creator Tim McManus. Em City is an experiment, whereby various criminal gangs of different ethnicity (blacks, Latino’s, Italian wiseguys, white supremacists, etc) are put together to live in a simulated society. To say that this experiment doesn’t run too smoothly would be somewhat of an understatement.

Because like outside of the prison, the aim of every criminal group or individual is to gain in power. When stripped of almost everything, other means must be used to achieve this, such as rape or violence. This quest for power runs through Oz like a red line. But there are other matters that the inmates pursue, like love, success or even redemption.

The problem is jealousy. Humans of whom everything is taken away, tend to get disagreeable about other people’s achievements. So whenever they sense a shred of happiness around another inmate, they will take the cause away indefinitely. This doesn’t only apply to prisoners, but to the guards as well. Like the one guard who gets a pro-basketball contract. His ankles are slices, putting him out of the game for good.

Plainly put, once you get into Oz, you’re a dead man. Sometimes literally. If Oz teaches us one thing, it is that inside Emerald City, anybody can die at any given time. Even main characters! The ones that manage to survive have to deal with the harrowing psychological effects of prison life. If they ever get out, they are likely to return. Sometimes by their own doing, or by the doing of a fellow inmate who likes to keep them around.

Absolutely hopeless.

Oz, that was there even before TV-gamechanger The Sopranos, is the show that put pay channel Home Box Office (HBO) firmly on the map. It differentiates itself from typical network shows by allowing things to unfold naturally. That means shocking content at times: rapes, gruesome violence, male frontal nudity and homosexual relations are not filtered out for the audience. That gives the series a very raw feel to it. It may be unpleasant at times, it is also very addicting.

What starts out as a realistic show, becomes more fantastical in later seasons. It is stunning either way. While the main goal of Oz, seems to be making a political statement, it also manages to provide superbly entertaining drama. This is mainly due to the brilliantly realized characters, both inmates and staff, that know how to surprise the audience every time.

Some of those characters are present from the start like Beecher, Schillinger, O’Reilly, Alvarez, Adabisi and Kareem Said. Logically their personal stories and relationships are the most fascinating, but what Oz also does very well is keeping the in- and outflow of inmates up to a pleasant level. It is not really possible to explain some of the characters’ stories as it would do injustice to the writing, but believe the reviewer: it is fascinating.

Watching Oz is basically like observing a monkey cage. There is a brawl every few minutes and the smartest inmates (best schemers) live the longest. If you’re up for great drama with a message, Oz is your fix. Just don’t get too attached to any of the characters.

TV Dungeon: Six Feet Under

(2001 – 2005, USA)

Creator: Alan Ball
Cast: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Mathew St. Patrick, Freddy Rodriquez, Rachel Griffiths

5 Seasons (63 Episodes)

‘Every Day Above Ground is A Good One’

Alan Ball, the screenplay writer of American Beauty, once again displays his darkly comic view on suburban life (and death) in a series of marvelous splendor. This time around we follow the Fishers, a family that runs a funeral parlor in Los Angeles. After father Nathaniel Sr. (Richard Jenkins) dies in the pilot episode (comically getting crushed by a bus while lighting a smoke in his new hearse), his funeral business is left to his two sons Nate and David.

Nate (Peter Krause), the oldest son, is a good-looking, somewhat egocentric guy who never had much interest in the family business. David (Michael C. Hall) on the other hand has almost made it a sacred task to become a skilled mortician. He is frustrated that his father was always more fond of his brother Nate that he has now left half of his business. But mostly he resents himself for his homosexuality. This is communicated to the audience through conversations between David and his deceased father. Talking to the dead is a normal phenomenon in Six Feet Under. It is also used as a device to let the characters self reflect and express their feelings to the audience.

The youngest sibling is spontaneous daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) who is introduced while she is taking crystal meth with her new boyfriend Gabe when hearing the news of her fathers death. Mother Ruth, portrayed with great intensity by Frances Conroy, deals with her husband’s loss by throwing herself in a series of relationships. She frequently expresses her strong need to share more with her family, but never really opens up herself. She is a character that can easily switch from sympathetic to sometimes downright abominable. A trait all the major characters in the series share at some point during the five season stretch.

All the characters and their relationships evolve greatly throughout the series. From Nate’s difficult relationship with the initially self-centered Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), a young woman who was exposed to psychiatry at a young age and is now living the self fulfilling prophecy that everything will go wrong, to David’s relationship with the handsome black policeman Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) who also went through a difficult childhood. Then, there is also the ambitious mortician Federico (Freddy Rodriquez), the very conventional and often bourgeois apprentice of Nathaniel Sr. who wants a partnership in the Fisher’s business. Both Ruth and Claire go through several relationships throughout the series that basically all fail at a certain point.

All the cast-members perform exceptionally well. Nate is portrayed with great confidence by Krause, who can switch from selfish to empathetic in no time. Nate’s AVM seizures are nailed with frightening accuracy by Krause. Hall, who hardly had any acting experience at that point in his career, is unforgettable as David, the character that arguably goes through the biggest development during the course of the series. The excellent Conroy and Ambrose as Ruth and Claire complete the dysfunctional Fisher family with their tantrums and occasional outbursts. The regular cast is often accompanied by guest-actors such as Lili Taylor, James Cromwell and Kathy Bates.

The theme death is off course elaborately explored throughout the series. Every episode starts with the death of a one time appearing character. These deaths are always perfectly in line with the feel of the series as they range between sad, dramatic, disturbing and funny. The mourning process is also fantastically observed and much attention has been given to the prosthetic effects used to create the often mutilated corpses that the Fisher’s have to embalm. The themes are all beautifully interwoven and composed with subtle visual symbolism, clever humor and poignant situations. The beautiful cinematography is evident from the brilliant opening credits on to the dreamy sequences later in the series.

There is a political agenda as well. David and Keith struggle with the unfair treatment of homosexuals and Claire’s left-liberal ideas clash with George Bush’s America. Six Feet Under is one of these shows where everything fits in perfectly. The greatest triumph is perhaps the shimmering final act (more specifically the final four episodes of season 5). It is beyond much doubt that Alan Ball and his team of writers, actors and directors have created the most memorable ending to a TV series to date. Not to say that the preceding stuff is not worthwhile. It is a powerhouse series on both comical and dramatic grounds and I urge you strongly to watch it. It might change your outlook on life, and it will certainly affect your view on death.

5 topseries in ultieme fantasy streaming jaar 2022

Voor de liefhebber van fantasy wordt 2022 een topjaar. Deze vijf series wil je niet missen:

1. House of the Dragon

Streamen Via: HBO Max

HBO is het huis voor baanbrekende televisieseries. Eind jaren 90’ veranderde de kabeldienst het medium met series als The Sopranos, Deadwood en The Wire. En het vorige decennium deden ze dat nog een keer met Game of Thrones dat aantoonde dat televisie ook een plek kan zijn voor high budget fantasy spektakel. House of the Dragon wordt niet baanbrekend in die zin omdat het voortborduurt op een bestaand succes. Echter, de eerste vier afleveringen die nu zijn verschenen tonen aan dat HotD alles in zich heeft om een hit te worden: fantastische personages, acteurs (o.a. Paddy Considine en Matt Smith zijn fantastisch), speciale effecten en waanzinnige art direction. Als je na acht seizoenen Game of Thrones genoeg dacht te hebben van Westeros met al het brute geweld en politieke gekonkel, is het kijken van de eerste aflevering van HotD genoeg om je op andere gedachten te brengen. Dat was bij mij althans het geval.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Streamen Via: Amazon Prime

De langverwachte serie The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is eindelijk gearriveerd en we kunnen weer ademhalen: het is in elk geval geen complete ramp geworden. Al zijn er de nodige Tolkien fans (en Elon Musk) die daar anders over denken. Naar mijn bescheiden mening hebben de eerste drie afleveringen een aantal forse plussen en minnen. Om te beginnen met de nadelen; er zit geen enkele payoff in de eerste afleveringen. Natuurlijk moet het verhaal opgebouwd worden, maar de beste scriptschrijvers maken van individuele afleveringen bevredigende mini-films. Deze storytelling is een opeenhoping van open vragen en dat werkt niet goed. Ook over de casting van een aantal acteurs heb ik m’n twijfels. Aan de positieve kant: dit is de duurste serie ooit en dat is te zien. Bij de eerste aanblik van het eilandkoninkrijk Númenor viel mijn mond letterlijk open; stunning. Ook zijn er al een aantal geslaagde actiescènes die de potentie van de show laten zien; dit gaat alleen nog maar beter worden. Het verhaal, over de opkomst van dark lord Sauron in Midden-Aarde, lijkt goed uitgewerkt te zijn en is zeker boeiend genoeg voor een serie van meerdere seizoenen. Kortom, de mega-investering van Amazon lijkt redelijk goed uit te pakken. Ik ben voorlopig zeker aan boord.

3. Andor

Streamen Via: Disney Plus

Na The Book of Boba Fett en Obi-Wan Kenobi is dit de derde live-action Star Wars serie die Disney Plus dit jaar naar buiten brengt. De output stelt tot nu toe nog niet teleur en de verwachtingen van Andor zijn dan ook hooggespannen. Voor wie de draad wat betreft het Star Wars universum even kwijt is: Andor (voornaam Cassian) is één van de helden van de film Star Wars: Rogue One uit 2016. Deze serie wordt een prequel van die behoorlijk goede film en zal gaan over de vroege strijd van de rebellen tegen het keizerrijk. De terugkeer van de tot nu toe succesvolste Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian staat gepland voor 2023, dus Andor moet de fans tot die tijd zoet weten te houden. Aan de trailer te zien gaat dat waarschijnlijk prima lukken.

4. The Sandman

Streamen Via: Netflix

The Sandman, gebaseerd op de naar verluid briljante strip van Neil Gaiman, is een van de grotere Netflix-series dit jaar. Zoals gebruikelijk lanceerde de streamingdienst de serie integraal op het platform in augustus. De serie bestaat uit tien delen en later werd daar nog een bonusaflevering toegevoegd. The Sandman kreeg overwegend positieve kritieken en de serie is ontegenzeggelijk origineel. Maar het is niet echt mainstream-materiaal. Net als de strip is dit meer een cult succes te noemen. Een nadeel van The Sandman vond ik dat de afleveringen een beetje los zand zijn. Het overkoepelende verhaal wist me niet echt mee te trekken, vooral niet na de belangrijke vijfde aflevering. Daarna vond ik het steeds lastig om niet af te haken. Maar de onbekende Tom Sturridge als het titelkarakter is goed gecast, en heeft iets fascinerends over zich. Ook ziet de serie er fantastisch uit en zitten er genoeg boeiende personages om het toch absoluut de moeite waard te maken.

5. Willow

Streamen Via: Disney Plus

Nog een traktatie (hoop ik!) die in november op Disney Plus zal verschijnen is de serie Willow. Met Warwick Davis in de hoofdrol, maar zonder Val Kilmer (Kilmer’s ex-vrouw Joanne Whalley keert wel terug). Een nieuwe aanwinst voor de cast is Christian Slater. De film Willow uit 1986 kwam uit de koker van George Lucas en is één van de beste fantasy films uit de jaren 80’ (na The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi en Excalibur). Als de serie hetzelfde gehalte aan epische verhalen, donkere magie en heerlijke slechteriken heeft als de film wordt het nostalgisch genieten. De schrijvers en regisseurs brengen de nodige ervaring mee, maar kunnen zij het fantastische bronmateriaal omtoveren tot een moderne interpretatie die precies de juiste snaren weet te raken? We gaan het zien.

The Verdict: The Matrix Resurrections

I was very much looking forward to this The Matrix sequel as I am a devoted fan of the first movie and I, as opposed to many others, also appreciate the sequels (especially Reloaded). So I was ready for it. HBO Max, which has just started its streaming service in the Netherlands, offered The Matrix Resurrections as one their main big blockbusters to stream. Bring it on! I thought, but man, what a total disaster this was!! Neo and Trinity are somehow still plugged in the Matrix and Neo works as a game programmer who made the successful Matrix game series and he falls in love with Trinity once again. How very meta. I hated this storyline and thought it didn’t work at all, but I continued to watch this turd hoping that somehow it would redeem itself. This never happened. Even the action looked much worse than in the original movies. How is that even possible? As much as I tried to like it, I cannot think of a single thing to recommend this for. It falls apart from the start and is best considered as a glitch in the Matrix that should never have happened.

The Matrix Resurrections is now available on HBO Max.

The verdict: to stream or not to stream? Definitely NOT to stream