Two years ago, Netflix fans and soon thereafter the rest of the world discovered Orange is the New Black. It was an original, fresh and sexy drama peppered, pun intended, with comedy that thumbs the pulse of a sexist, chauvinistic world as seen from both behind bars and in front of them.
It signaled a new era of girl power, as we watched Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) grow up from a naïve, bisexual woman who is suddenly ripped from her suburban, pre-martial straight bliss and thrust into prison with a hardened band of criminals, misfits and the sheer unlucky ones on whom society has turned its collective back.
Out of all that chaos, Piper finally identifies with her true self as she is embraced by and embraces her new, true family.
Based on the Piper Kerman’s memoir chronicling her real-life story of life in a women’s prison after being convicted of money laundering and drug trafficking, Jenji Kohan’s Orange interpretation forced us to deal with serious social issues such as rape, homosexuality, mental illness, racism, addiction and the conflation of incarceration as punishment and rehabilitation.
The critics raved and audiences caved, garnering a key second round knockout for Netflix in the ongoing original programming title bout, coming on the heels of its wildly successful début with Kevin Spacey’s political thriller House of Cards. HBO and Showtime, no strangers to original programming greatness, suddenly found themselves with no choice but enter the streaming sweepstakes, and viewers are the big winners.
Meanwhile, “Down unda’,” another TV drama was born with a similar storyline yet a much more sinister, gritty twist. Wentworth first aired on Australia’s SoHo network on May 1, 2013 – six weeks before Orange began streaming to Netflix customers – and was an immediate hit. It is a reimaging of Reg Watson’s Prisoner that aired on Network Ten from 1979 to 1986. Wentworth was so well received that within a year it was distributed in New Zealand and the UK.
Like it’s American cousin, Wentworth follows the travails of Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), a loving housewife pushed to the brink by abusive husband Harry (Jake Ryan). After being beaten one too many times, Bea attempts to murder Harry by faking his suicide by asphyxiation in the carport.
But daughter Debbie (Georgia Flood) happens upon the scene and bursts into the garage. A suddenly sober Bea realizes what she’s about to carry out and has a change of heart. Harry lives, and his ego wounded, lies for Bea so she avoids jail and he skirts sure shame with work and his friends. The authorities don’t buy it.
Bea is remanded into custody to await trial and is booked into Wentworth, which is amid a power struggle between crime boss Jacquelyn Holt (Kris McQuade) and street smart Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva). But no matter how above the fray Bea tries to be, with each day in the hoosegow, running with her fellow prisoners donning stylish turquoise track suits, she is pulled further into the criminal underbelly of prison life when all she wants to do is to stay alive and get back home to Debbie.
Similar to Piper in Orange, Bea learns she is capable of more than she could have ever imagined, and her ascension to “Queen Bea” is almost pre-ordained. Meanwhile, the side stories don’t detract from the main narrative but add wonderful texture and flavors that enhance this hearty television gumbo. I don’t want to give any more away as you just have to watch the rest for yourself.
The acting superb, the script tight as a drum and delightfully ironic, Wentworth is a must-see for those seeking to break the monotony of American TV doldrums. This Australian gem is fast-paced and cinematic in its delivery, wit and character development while not falling prey to its own hubris, as other dynamic dramas such as 24 fell victim to.
Season 3 is set to begin in March for Aussie and UK viewers, so don’t wait any longer to pour yourself a cuppa and sink your teeth into Wentworth, as by this fall or winter the series is sure to be coming to Netflix. The hours you’ll spend mesmerized in front of the tube will most definitely be worth it.