July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

HBO (Sat, July 12, 11:30 p.m. ET)


While no one would expect a drama set in a place called Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary to be a frolic, some viewers may be repelled by the sheer concentration of ugliness in this eight-episode series from executive producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street). The July 12 premiere starts with an inmate being stabbed and ends with one being set on fire. In between there’s nary a ray of sunshine. But the Big House is filled with fine actors, including Ernie Hudson as the businesslike warden, Terry Kinney as the intense, idealistic head of an experimental unit that stresses rehabilitation, Eamonn Walker as a Muslim prisoner who combines militancy and serenity, Jon Seda as a young Mafia hothead, Lee Tergesen as a babe-in-the-woods lawyer sentenced for killing a child in a drunk-driving incident, and J.K. Simmons as his predatory neo-Nazi cellmate.

By the second episode (July 14 at 11 p.m.), you may be wearying of the disabled prisoner (Harold Perrineau), who delivers pretentiously hip commentaries to the camera, or disgusted by the Jeffrey Dahmer-like parent-killer (Sean Whitesell), whose unnatural appetite is apparently writer Fontana’s idea of a good sick joke. But you won’t escape easily from this drama’s grip.

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