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Sunday, July 9, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Oz': Doing time together Wednesday nights

Tribune Media Services

While "The Sopranos" has attracted the majority of headlines for HBO the past year or so, the cablenet has another drama that's just as hard-hitting and unpredictable, but perhaps a little less palatable to a wide audience.

" `Oz' is the best show ever," says actor Dean Winters. "You can't glamorize a show about prison. With `The Sopranos,' you can somewhat glamorize a mob family, but you can't glamorize prison life. These are bad men."

At 11 p.m. Wednesday, "Oz" launches its fourth season, the first with more than eight shows. The first eight of the 16-episode fourth season air this year, with the remainder coming in January.

Produced by the team of Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana ("Homicide: Life on the Street," "The Beat") - and plotted and largely written by Fontana - "Oz" is set in the Oswald State Correctional facility, located in an unnamed but apparently Northeastern state. As last season ended, a race war erupted, and a disgruntled guard left a gun on the bunk of African inmate Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

How the gun is used and who uses it provides the impetus to much of the action in the series opener, in which Warden Glynn (Ernie Hudson) is ready to restore normal operations after two weeks of 24-hour lockdown for the inmates.

Joining the large cast this year are Reg E. Cathey (HBO's "The Corner"), Emerald City's new chief; and Lance Reddick ("I Dreamed of Africa"), as an undercover cop determined to break the unit's flourishing drug ring.

Among the other regulars returning to the show are Terry Kinney, Rita Moreno, Harold Perrineau, J.K. Simmons, Lee Tergeson, Eamonn Walker, and the brother team of Dean and Scott Winters.

The Winters brothers also play brothers on the show - vicious Ryan and brain-damaged Cyril O'Reily. During the break from "Oz" last year, Winters did half a season as Detective Brian Cassidy on the NBC series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which is shot, as is "Oz," in New York City. Still starring on "L&O:SVU" is Chris Meloni, who plays inmate Keller on "Oz."

While nobody on "Oz" is wrongly imprisoned, the show has a surprisingly broad appeal (although its liberal doses of profanity, sex, nudity and violence ensure it will probably never be seen in syndication). "One of the reasons it has been such a hit with people," says Brad, "is because it struck a chord where there really isn't a way out. I think that `there-isn't-a-way-out' framework operates on many levels. There isn't a way out of the prison for the characters, and there's no way out for the viewer as well.

"What it does, given that these characters' backgrounds are often so horrid, is show them in these situations, these confined situations. Aside from the violence that does take place inside the prison, you see these people acting and behaving and feeling and thinking and dreaming and inventing, as we all do."

"What has struck people is they find themselves connecting with these people whom they would just habitually dismiss, based upon our cultural framework for right and wrong, justice and injustice, the good guys and the bad guys."

And, for better or worse, Brad feels that "Oz" doesn't pull punches. "It's about something, and it matters. The show has a burden to just put this out there, a mirror of what's going on, just one aspect of the country. So much of TV is such a whitewash, and you would never get a sense of reality from a lot of the TV shows out there.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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