TV Outside the Box
By Neil Landau
Excerpt from an interview with TOM FONTANA: The Man in the HAZMAT Suit
The original trailblazer, Tom Fontana has spent much of his extraordinary 30-year career writing about crime and punishment. Accordingly, I’d be committing a felony by not starting the story of the digital television revolution with him. Not only did he create, write, and produce Oz, the first-ever scripted drama for HBO and indeed premium cable, but he also created the first show for BBC America (Copper), and the first Netflix Original (Borgia).
Fontana was also showrunner on the groundbreaking police series, Homicide: Life on the Street. He and longtime producing partner, Academy Award winner Barry Levinson, together with credited creator Paul Attanasio, adapted the series from the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by Baltimore Sun reporter, David Simon. Simon wrote for Homicide, and then went on to create one of the greatest series of all time: The Wire.
Both Fontana and Levinson felt that Simon’s gripping, nonfiction book, rich and expansive, would work better as a TV series than a movie. The only catch was, Levinson had no interest in making a traditional network procedural, in which a crime is committed in the teaser, and by the end of the episode the perp is brought to justice. Problem solved. Neither Fontana nor Levinson wanted formulaic. Both wanted to explore the gray areas, where there are no easy answers. There was a caveat: in order for Levinson to commit to a series, he wanted to make the first-ever police procedural with no gunplay, no car chases, no pat resolutions. Fontana told him: “That’s impossible. Let’s do it!”
Years later, in the series finale of Oz, when a mysterious package arrives at Oswald Penitentiary containing the deadly chemical anthrax, chaos ensues. Everyone is evacuated. Even death row inmates are loaded onto buses. Free at last, at least temporarily. Then the hazardous materials task force enters the prison to mitigate the disaster. If you look closely at the first responder, the man in the HAZMAT suit, that’s Tom Fontana, making his first and last cameo. It was a fitting grace note for such a landmark series, emblematic of Fontana’s entire career: an artist not afraid to take risks.
Whether he was battling network censors for permission to use the word “testicle”—in an episode about a patient battling testicular cancer on St. Elsewhere; depicting a severely homophobic inmate showing mercy to a suffering terminal AIDS patient through euthanasia; or injecting a surreal, Greek chorus-like, omniscient, wheelchair-bound narrator on Oz, Fontana is always a courageous, inspirational, provocative storyteller.
Neil Landau: You made the first-ever drama series for HBO, BBC America, and Netflix. You’re going to be the lead interview in my book. Another first. How about that?
Tom Fontana: It should also be noted that Barry Levinson and I did a series on the WB1 [The Bedford Diaries] and we were the last drama series on the WB. So we don’t just start networks, we also get networks canceled.
NL: [laughs] Well, yes, rarely. But it points to your willingness to take risks and break new ground.
TF: I appreciate your saying that. I think part of it is, I get these sort of crazy, half-assed notions in my head about trying something that I’ve never done before. I pitched variations on prison shows to all 4 of the broadcast networks, and they looked at me like I had gone completely insane.
NL: You also bring your game. If the door opened and you weren’t able to create such high quality programming that sustains, that would be the end of that.
TF: You’re absolutely right. I do think that if someone is going to take a risk on me, I have an obligation to do the very best that I can and really cause as much trouble as I can.
NL: Chris Albrecht took a chance green-lighting Oz as the first scripted drama for HBO and if it didn’t work—who knows? Maybe they wouldn’t have continued making original series.
TF: I carried the weight of that the whole first season, because I kept thinking to myself, “If I fuck this up Chris is going to say to the next guy in the door, ‘I trusted Fontana and I got screwed for it, so I’m not trusting you.’ ” I feel good about the fact that I didn’t screw it up and David Chase [The Sopranos] was the next one through the door.
NL: He didn’t screw it up either.
TF: Neither did Alan Ball [Six Feet Under].
NL: You were ahead of your time, not afraid to disrupt conventional expectation. In Oz, for example, as soon as things calmed down in prison, as soon as a character became comfortable, your instinct, which proved right, was to kill somebody off, or throw a curveball which replicated the feeling of a real prison. Dangerous, claustrophobic, unpredictable. You liked to continually shake things up and keep your audience on edge. You always challenged us, when for the longest time TV existed to reassure us.
TF: That’s right. In the past, the goal was to reinforce the sensibilities that we were all hoping were true, but obviously both turned out to be more fictional than any TV series we watched. As more and more sort of lies in society got exposed, the writers were allowed to have more freedom.