Why Wentworth Is The Best Australian Show On TV
The series isn’t just putting women at the centre of a physical, gritty and compelling drama; it’s putting Australian TV on the map again, too. Wentworth returns to Foxtel tomorrow night.
[Update July 9, 2017]: We first published this piece three years ago, right before Wentworth came back for its second season.
With the world only just starting to turn on Piper in Orange Is The New Black, it was arguably the height of Global Interest In Women’s Prison Drama, and it preceded a bunch of other impressive Australian offerings. We hadn’t yet heard of Cleverman or The Kettering Incident or Glitch or Black Comedy or The Family Law. But even now, as the show finishes up its fifth season, it’s being praised as the “best drama on TV”. Does the claim still stand up?
This month the cast and crew of Wentworth are coming to our inaugural Video Junkee festival to discuss the show’s continuing legacy. You can grab your ticket to that now and/or read up on the show’s beginnings below:
An unremarkable thing happened back in May of 2013: 244,000 televisions across Australia flickered with the nightmarish glow of a harsh neon jail cell. There were no dragons or royal incestuous trysts, and no beheadings or castrations to speak of.
Instead, a battered housewife with Medusa-like curls stared out from the TV screen all bug-eyed and sleep deprived, after attempting to murder her husband.
This was the first episode of Wentworth, a contemporary remake of cult ‘80s Australian soap opera Prisoner, itself based on British drama Within These Walls. Our suburban protagonist was about to enter a morally bankrupt system run by a motley crew of society’s outcasts, and a new generation of drama-lovers were about to be introduced to the 2013 incarnation of Queen Bea: housewife, hairdresser, mother, red-headed killer, and soon-to-be top dog on Soho’s Wentworth.
Perhaps one of Australian television’s most arresting matriarchal characters throughout the ‘80s, Queen Bea was already well-known to fans of the show that preceded it. Not familiar? Neither was I, but I didn’t let a melodramatic ‘80s soap inform my forthcoming relationship with weekly prime-time viewing — and neither should you.
Although Wentworth‘s Queen Bea was yet to ascend to the top-dog spot in Cell Block H as the first season came to a close last year, Wentworth was reigning supreme, breaking records as the most-watched drama in Foxtel’s history. And with season two about to premiere and a third season recently confirmed, myself and those 1.8 million unique viewers are about to give the Wi-Fi a rest for the evening, as we reignite our widescreen flames with Wentworth’s old razorwire gang.
Oh, and apparently there’s a new HBIC. It’s very exciting, obviously.
@Wentworth They be peeing themselves with fear and am peeing myself with excitement hope Bea and Franky become a team and work together
— sam (@billgun2) May 1, 2013
Although it’s technically a remake, Wentworth is far from a nostalgic trip for fans of the Seriously Camp classic. If you like TV that leaves your gag-reflex raw as you beat against your lounge room floor asking “Why, you bastards?! Why?!”, you’ll be emotionally invested from the get-go.
Here are a few reasons why we think Wentworth is one of the best TV shows you’ll watch all year.
#1: It Will Play With Your Feels
In a similar fashion to Breaking Bad’s kombi van meth-labs and barren desert landscapes, Wentworth prison sets just the right cinematic context for man-made purgatory. It’s all harsh neon-lighting and jarring hand-held camera and, save for Bea’s fiery, secret-holding mane, an overwhelming amount of washed-out blue tones dominate the screen. Visually, it’s extremely unsettling — but it’s not just the lack of warm colours that’ll leave you begging for a cuddle when the credits start rolling.
Wentworth’s writers have a knack for creating characters worth the emotional expenditure. They’re a despicable bunch, really, but each possess a vulnerability that makes the audience feel as though their collective hearts have been pulsed in a blender, as we watch them break down after near sexual-assaults or alcohol-induced miscarriages, to be left choking on their own vomit in a heroin stupor. Wentworth is a slippery-dip into a hard-edged world of tough-as-guts women, all trying to navigate a system built on power struggles outside of societal norms. Most of them ripped from their families for crimes of their own doing, every woman of Wentworth has an axe to grind. They can’t control their lives on the outside, so there’s only a jail block that’s left to rule over.
There’s Franky Doyle, the series’ hilariously violent “bean-flicker”, and reality-TV-star-come-fetishised criminal (Franky was kicked off a cooking show for burning the competition’s host with a frying pan full of tempura oil. Feisty). In season one, Franky was introduced as the prison show’s token hard-ass androgyne and resident lothario. Played by Rush’s Nicole da Silva, Franky’s quest for the crown at Wentworth was always under threat by head villain Jacs; when Jacs wasn’t trying to maim Franky’s hands under a hot-press, she was trying to sexually-assault her with a screw driver.
It was basically like watching Shane’s heart get broken by Cherie on The L-Word, but like a million times worse — all thanks to da Silva’s convincingly vicious portrayal of the fringe-dwelling outsider.
— Franky Doyle (@FrankyDoyle) February 5, 2014
And of course, there’s our main protagonist Bea, who’s impossible not to like: a suburban mother of one endures years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a dickhead husband, attempts to gas him in the family station wagon, and then changes her mind when her daughter walks in. But when it comes to Bea, Wentworth doesn’t hold back in helping us understand the character’s motives: make no mistake, Bea Smith is on a mission to control her exterior world as her mental stability unravels.
Original Prisoner watchers know of the evil that lurks within our curly-haired anti-hero. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen all of Prisoner, or maybe it’s because it took me a week to recover after watching her daughter Debbie be murdered by her boyfriend in a scene to rival the overdose of Breaking Bad’s Jane, but there’s something brilliantly vulnerable yet powerfully arresting about Nicole McCormack’s performance as Bea, which plays with morality and free will just perfectly. She’s sweet, but there’s hints of a psychopath in the making.
And now that her daughter’s death has been avenged, what will she live for?
#2: It Will Make You Like Australian TV. Like, Really.
I’m not asking you to submit to the fun police and give up your PirateBay addiction, but just give Aussie drama a chance, okay?
As deliciously over-the-top Prisoner was with its hilarious dialogue and strong Ocka enunciations, Wentworth is as polished and glossy and frighteningly real as our favourite award-winning downloads. Underage drug mules? Check. Unrequited Sapphic passion? Check. Ordinary objects as murder weapons? You’ll never hold a Bic ball point pen the same way again.
As progressive as the original Prisoner was in the ’80s, Wentworth isn’t just a show putting women at the centre of an unashamedly physical, gritty and downright graphically assaulting drama. It’s putting Australian TV on the map again, and has now been sold to over 20 countries. The Dutch have already made their own version, and a German version of Wentworth is in production too.
#3: Because Of Boomer
Because every villain drama needs a loveable oaf with a Hulkish anger management problem, let’s talk about Boomer. Think of Sue ‘Boomer’ Jenkins as Cell Block H’s ‘Dumb Muscle’. Essentially, Boomer is pretty much the Hordor of Wentworth, who bumbles along with a Kung-Fu Panda like loveability — except for the fact that she’s as brutal as the murderers amongst her.
Last season Boomer delivered some really good comic relief, which is much needed when people are trying to top themselves by choking on sandwiches or using the laundry room as their own personal slaughter house. When paired with Franky, one can’t help but draw a comparison between Timon and Pumbaa: pretty much everyone wants to ride into battle on Boomer’s shoulders, with that great, glorious boulder of unwashed hair and that glorious bosom.
#4: Erica And Franky
As season one’s Head Bitches In Charge, Erica and Franky have become Wentworth’s OTP. Healthy? No. Compelling? Yes.
As Wentworth Prison’s Governor, Erica is in THE position of power. As the former Big Cheese of Cell Block H, Franky is a law unto her own. But because this is a women’s prison where power hierarchies exist inside a vacuum, it’s really Franky who holds the balance as a predatory, violent and damaged female Casanova. Their sexual chemistry wasn’t so much explored as it was cruelly dangled in our faces, in the form of Erica’s sexual fantasies. Who could forget her discretionary ‘me-time’, inspired by watching Franky make out with another prisoner on CCTV?
All Erica wants is a chance to dominate and be dominated by the most unattainable person in her life. Maybe Erica will finally get a chance to lose control in season two, beyond that one stolen office pash — or will Franky have to keep all of her feelings inside her turquoise pants?
Wentworth mightn’t have the hulking bravado or retro romanticism that its contemporary audience-pullers have. Instead, the show’s entertainment values lie inside its suburban gothic undertones, its “whodunit” cliff-hangers, and yes, its Australian reincarnation of The L Word’s Shane (did I mention Franky’s the bad girl you’d go gay for?).
The real crime? Making us wait so long for the second season.
Camilla is a Melbourne-based writer and online marketer who has written for Everguide, The Vine, Svbscription and Portable.tv. She watches a lot of TV, enjoys overthinking pop culture, and sometimes tweets over here.