Analysis

Oct 9, 2013

Orange is the New Black, Wentworth is the new beige: what’s wrong with Australian TV?

It's the perfect case study. Two shows with the same premise: a women's prison, a terrified new inmate finding her place in the pecking order, and a pick-and-mix supporting cast of misfits whose stories are told in flashback. Wentworth premiered earlier this year on Foxtel's SoHo. Orange is the New Black debuts this week on Foxtel's Showcase. When it comes to scripted television, the divide between Australia and the rest of the world has never been easier to chart.

Byron Bache

Wires and Lights blogger and Curtain Call Melbourne critic

Danielle Brooks, Taylor Schilling, Vicky Jeudy and Samira Wiley in Orange is the New Black

Once upon a time, television was pap. TV was the like the art you bought pre-framed at Ikea because your walls were blank. A wasteland of expository dialogue and panstick make-up, cleverly lit to fill the spaces between car ads. But that was before. Before thirtysomething. Before ER. Before Oz begat The Sopranos, before The Sopranos begat The Wire, before Aaron Sorkin walked and talked his way from notable playwright to household name.

There’s still plenty of pap, but it has to clear a much higher bar. CSI and NCIS have season-long character arcs now. The standalone, all-about-the-guest-stars procedural episode died with Law & Order, though even that show built real people out of its characters in its final years.

We live in a world where Mad Men and Breaking Bad are cultural touchstones. Television now occupies the zeitgeistian parking spaces once reserved for blockbuster films and literary bestsellers. Where once we had Michael Crichton, Toni Morrison and Phillip Roth, we now have Shonda Rhimes, Matthew Weiner and Lena Dunham. The kind of rapture that gripped baby boomers everywhere as they waited to find out who killed Laura Palmer in 1991 comes in regular waves now. This year alone, the collective knuckles of the culturally aware have remained paper white through Broadchurch, Top of the Lake and The Bridge.

This golden age of television is an exclusively non-Antipodean affair. Sure, we made The Slap, but we also made The Strip. For every Rake there’s a Wild Boys, a Reef Doctors and a Tricky Business. Even with all four extremities in play, you wouldn’t have enough digits to count the double whammy critical and ratings failures of just the last five years. TV’s cultural dominance is all imported.

We’ve never been very good at following trends. When Ally McBeal was the biggest thing in the known universe, we tried our hand at dramedy with the irredeemably stupid Marshall Law. The endless search for a police procedural that works has seen a dazzling array of fizzers and only a couple of worthy contenders in Wildside, East West 101 and Rush. But on the rare occasion we get something right, we cleave to it. How else do we explain 43-episode seasons of All Saints, six separate incarnations of Good News Week, or the constant flow of shallow, ripped-from-the-headlines telemovies? How long before all we’ve got left is Underbelly: Boobs and Paper Giants: Mia Freedman’s Hair Appointment?

It’s this stick-with-things-that-work mindset that brought us Wentworth, a reimagining of the campy 1979 Grundy drama Prisoner. Wentworth lives in that slowly swelling category: Pretty Good for an Australian Drama. It sits alongside the much better Love My Way, a masterfully acted, beautifully shot, completely joyless show that was so busy making sure it had depth that it ended up not having any heart. It’s got a place on the shelf next to the criminally underwatched Spirited, too — the first high-concept Australian drama in decades — a show that had guts, humour and something to say, but could never get its glacial pacing right.

Wentworth carries only the tiniest traces of its source material. The tweaks are big and bold; it’s the kind of thing Ronald D. Moore did so successfully with 2004’s Battlestar Galactica, a burn-it-to-the-ground reimagining of the 1978 series. Prisoner‘s cruel-but-fair top dog Bea Smith is now a terrified, saucer-eyed new inmate, awaiting trial for the attempted murder of her husband. Geriatric drunk Lizzie Birdsworth is now Liz, and she’s 30 years younger. Sweet, bumbling Doreen, memorably played by an oft-pigtailed Collette Mann, is now a straight-talking young indigenous woman. One of the original series’ most beloved characters, correctional officer Meg Jackson — the prison governor this time around — is shivved to death in the first episode.

“Where Wentworth has puppet bitches with cardboard axes to grind, Orange is the New Black has flawed, difficult and dazzlingly real women.”

Created by Lara Radulovich, a long-time Neighbours producer, and written by veteran soap writer Pete McTighe, Wentworth‘s a bit of a taped-together house of cards — they’re nice looking cards, and you can knock it pretty hard and it’ll stand up, but the sticky tape wrapped around it all will start to buckle and show.

“Created by”: they’re the most powerful words in television. The best shows have a singular, distinctive voice. Bunheads had Amy Sherman-Palladino, Enlightened had Mike White, Louie has Louis C.K. Alan Ball, Tina Fey and David Chase — they’re names that mean something, even to casual viewers. These people sit down at their computers, dream up a group of people, give them flaws, hopes and history, and invent a world for them to inhabit. They give that world nuance and depth, they figure how to wring tension and conflict out of it, and they find ways to make sure the audience has someone to root for.

Wentworth doesn’t really have a voice, though. It’s more about tone, something it has a clearance-sale-level overstock of. Wentworth is gritty in a Very Special Episode sort of way. There’s a junkie — just one. She’s barely functional and a terrible mother, because as everyone knows: drug addicts are bad people. There are lesbians — two of them, both of whom are thin and attractive, often naked, and one of them (the Asian one) never has any lines. Everyone else is a hard-as-nails capital-B bitch, except for our protagonist Bea Smith, a passive, brooding cipher, and her cellmates Liz and Doreen, the three of whom are subjected to torments so soapy that all the grit washes off and becomes a soft grey foam that threatens to interrupt the constant sound effect-slathered slow-motion scene transitions.

Wentworth isn’t any good unless you grade it on a curve. For an Australian drama, it’s decent. But out in the real world it feels like something that would’ve played well programmed opposite JAG or Profiler. It’s clunky, its characters are broad and its plotting is desperately silly. It relies on the kind of twists and machinations that even the Days of Our Lives writers room would think twice about in 2013. The overarching mystery of Wentworth‘s first season is the murder of the prison governor. A crime which — in a modern prison saturated with CCTV cameras — happens in a corridor that somehow has no camera in it. The big events are too big, the long-awaited revelations are boring, and there’s no nuance. The tiny, carefully observed moments that make even US network dramas like The Good Wife so compelling are almost nowhere to be found, despite this being premium cable.

Orange is the New Black plays the same cards as Wentworth, but they’re stacked, shuffled, and dealt onto the table in plain sight. Based — fairly loosely — on a memoir by Piper Kerman, and created by Jenji Kohan, the creative force behind the sprawling Showtime hit Weeds, it’s the tale of artisanal-soap-making, Whole Foods-shopping Brooklynite Piper Chapman and the criminal past that catches up with her.

Chapman (Taylor Schilling) ends up in jail for her tangential involvement in an international drug smuggling operation 10 years earlier. Having long ago left that life — and her drug-ring mastermind girlfriend — behind, she’s married to a nebbish milquetoast-cum-writer (Jason Biggs). Prison life turns out to be nothing like the … For Dummies guides and self-help books she’s read to prepare herself, and she struggles to find a place in the complicated social ecosystem inside.

Kris McQuade and Nicole Da Silva in Wentworth

Where Wentworth has puppet bitches with cardboard axes to grind, Orange is the New Black has flawed, difficult and dazzlingly real women. The two shows employ the same flashback storytelling device: each episode includes scenes focusing on a different ensemble character’s life before prison. Wentworth uses these scenes to show the crimes that got them incarcerated, and force-feeds us a Cliff’s Notes version of their motivations. Orange uses these to flesh out characters, and we don’t always see the crime. Wentworth‘s women are all in for killing or maiming; Orange’s prisoners are in for all manner of things, often as unremarkable as credit card fraud.

And therein lies the rub: Orange locates the extraordinary in the ordinary. Kohan and her writers find story in the quietest and most unlikely of places: a broken freezer, a chicken, a misplaced screwdriver. Because that’s what the prison experience is; jails are tiny places and prisoners have tiny lives. Wentworth has no time for the ordinary. Put a screwdriver in the hands of one of Wentworth‘s hard-faced molls and they’ll have meaninglessly jammed it inside someone else within the hour. Veteran TV writer Joseph Dougherty (thirtysomething, Judging Amy, Pretty Little Liars) puts it this way:

“When dealing with characters and plot, you take a huge rock, throw it hard into the middle of a pond, and write the ripples.”

Orange is all about the ripples. On Wentworth, by the time the writers room is done chucking things, the pond’s full of Portaloo-sized boulders, there’s no water left, and all the frogs are dead.

The only brilliant material in Wentworth is reserved for correctional officer Vera Bennett — a sour, relentless bitch dubbed “Vinegar Tits” in the original — reworked as an uncertain, unworldy and unreadable woman who’s hit middle age without ever really living, played with heartbreaking intensity by Kate Atkinson. But one subplot can’t and won’t redeem a show, especially one that, despite its self-serious tone, is rife with stupidity. (Your daughter has a unexpected, un-foreshadowed and completely out-of-character heroin addiction! Your daughter is dead! You can’t go to the funeral!). If Wentworth is supposed to be a campy prison romp, its cast are working far too hard. Nicole Da Silva, Shareena Clanton, Kris McQuade and Celia Ireland are all hugely talented actors dealing with story arcs that would’ve been right at home on Channel Nine’s 1992 interactive version of Cluedo.

In the age of the television antihero, Piper Chapman stands comfortably alongside Walter White, Jackie Peyton and Don Draper. She’s flawed as all hell, but lordy do we want her to win. As Andy Greenwald puts it on Grantland:

“It takes real talent to make ignorance and privilege seem sympathetic; Schilling’s Piper is often the butt of the joke, but the actress never winks. It’s the difference between Reese Witherspoon in Election and Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 2.”

Bea Smith, on the other hand, flits between proto-sociopath and weepy bogan with a pointless unpredictability that makes Carrie on Homeland look like Carol Brady.

Orange deals with race, gender and power in ways we rarely see on television. Kohan and her writers never go for the obvious joke, or the easy way out. Any time the whole thing heads in the general direction of cliché, they twist the wheel sharply to the left. On Wentworth, the screws have the power — and the secret drug addictions, secret abortions and secret imaginary boyfriends — and the prisoners have none. Orange defines power in an entirely different way; when you live in an altered world, you make your own rules.

The stifling tribal landscape of prison — with its shifting allegiances and recalibrated expectations — is one of the most perfect story engines a showrunner could ask for, and in Orange, Kohan knows it. Where Wentworth has to go beyond the confines of the jail for its writhing, fitful stories, Orange stays within the same walls its characters have to. Once you’re inside, the worst has already happened; prison is about making do with what you’ve got, about creating the best version of normal you can. Cast in sharp relief against the transcendent brilliance of OrangeWentworth is nothing but dull.

For all its failings, Wentworth is still a small step forward for Australian drama. We make television in this country that looks and feels world class, but we never quite get the writing right. Sometimes it’s the writing itself, and sometimes it’s what happens to it along the way. Writers are the lowest link on the food chain that is the Australian television industry, and are usually excluded entirely from the production and post-production process after turning in a script. Where US writers rooms often devote a week to the plotting of a single episode (before a word of it is even written), Australian writers rooms are often forced to plot an entire series in that time. The anti-writer (and anti-writing) culture has to give way eventually, and there are small glimmers of hope. Singular voices are out there, and you only need look as far as Marieke Hardy and Kirsty Fisher’s brilliant Laid, or Josh Thomas’s delightfully odd Please Like Me for glimpses of a hopeful, well-plotted future.

Orange is the New Black is that girl you see at roller derby and wish you were cool enough to be friends with. Wentworth is just some ponytailed netballer catching the bus home in a lettered bib.

Orange is the New Black airs on Foxtel’s Showcase on Wednesday, October 9 at 8.30pm. Season two of Wentworth will premiere in 2014.

[youtube width=”555″ height=”312″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nryWkAaWjKg[/youtube]

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30 comments

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30 thoughts on “Orange is the New Black, Wentworth is the new beige: what’s wrong with Australian TV?

  1. Jason Whittaker

    I’m sorry you couldn’t find heart in Love My Way — it was most certainly there.

    1. Byron Bache

      I really enjoyed Love My Way, but it’s an exercise in why even the darkest, grittiest most heart-wrenching dramas need lightness.

  2. Jason Whittaker

    I think the comparison you make is unfair (given the markets, resources, etc) and yet entirely illuminating. You’ve highlighted what’s right about so much of US television and what’s wrong with so much of our own.

    Perhaps there’s another point to make: US TV is at some sort of zenith because the most talented people are now working in it. Martin Scorsese produces TV; David Fincher directs TV; Alan Ball writes TV. I don’t think Australia’s best writers and directors are working in TV. Imagine if Andrew Bovell wrote a TV show? Imagine if Ray Lawrence directed one? Perhaps if Foxtel and the ABC (and they’re the only ones that will do it) broke free of the pretty incestuous TV production companies and really hunted for the best talent …

    We’re certainly missing strong voices. Or at least singular, coherent voices.

    I reckon Please Like Me is the best thing on Australian TV in a long time. For that very reason.

    1. Byron Bache

      I don’t think it’s that unfair. We can make astonishingly good TV, it’s just that the industry doesn’t respect writing. And why should it, when people watch Wonderland and Winners and Losers anyway, because they’re hungry for Australian stories. The Australian television industry recognises effort, prior credits and reputation above talent. And that’s all well and good, but five years in the story room at Neighbours, or ten years slogging away on episodes of Blue Heelers, McLeod’s Daughters and Rescue Special Ops doesn’t make you a decent writer or a good storyteller; ya either got it, or ya ain’t.

      I reject the idea that the current television zeitgeist has anything to do with the Scorseses, the Soderberghs and the Finchers of the world. They’re bandwagon jumpers.

      You’re right about Please Like Me. Offspring deserves a mention too — the writing on that show is on par with any decent US dramedy.

  3. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    Underbelly;Boobs.

    That one cracked me up.

  4. (the other) HR Nicholls

    I’ve been scratching my head about this for a while too. Scale of the local industry can’t help – for all I know the ratio of good shows to bad here might well be the same once you consider the flood of garbage that never even leaves the US. Timid, bland networks hold things back too, we have the idiot half of the News Corp split running Foxtel.

    Does the show runner role exist in the same way in this country?

    1. Byron Bache

      (the other) HR Nicholls,
      The showrunner role doesn’t really exist here, though there are companies like Playmaker Media who are doing plenty to change the producer-centric, writer-minimising nature of the industry. Please Like Me, Laid and all of Chris Lilley’s shows are some decent examples of a writer retaining a large degree of control over their vision, even if they’re not the “showrunner”.

  5. sauron256

    Can I recommend an editor? So many words used to say so little!

    1. Byron Bache

      Sauron256,
      You can, though we’ve already got a very talented one. You can email Jason at [email protected].

  6. Penley

    I’m glad you mentioned Wildside, I’ve often thought that was one of the best things produced here in Australia. It’s just a shame it was so short lived, and such a long time ago…

  7. ray stevens

    Cloudstreet was HBO grade tv but didnt make it to free to air.

    The ABC drama and comedy commissioning departments have several years of poor judgement and ongoing make work support for a mediocre stable of writers and actors.

  8. shitesherlock

    You know what I really like on Oz TV right now? It’s A Date on the ABC. I know! Call me shallow. But I think we (Oz TV) are good in this understated, comedy space, short, sharp, self-deprecating stories, where we DON’T try too hard at complicated character development. When we do go down that path, it becomes a caricature.

  9. Elisha Pearce

    Interesting to see Australian TV so derided in this article and then so talked up in the Guardian today – titled “Better to fund high-end global TV than back Australian films” by Lynden Barber (couldnt link to it).
    Im interested in the workings of TV and would love to work there somehow, someday, but dont know a tonne. I found myself agreeing with both!
    Looking back maybe this column is a pointer at the problem, the vast rubble strewn around the few gleaming successs, and the Barber column somewhat of a signpost to possible future improvement.
    What do people think about the strategic funding of Aussie drama? Theres probably something to be said for pivoting to TB away from film and maybe using a bit of BBC’s ‘short series’ model that worked with Top of the Lake transplanted to NZ.

    1. Laurence Barber

      Fun (read: not fun) fact: at one point, Top of the Lake was going to be an Australian co-production. The ABC was all set to co-produce, but objected to the creators’ desire to cast an American – Elisabeth Moss – in the lead role. So they knocked it back. It went on to be nominated for 8 Emmys, winning 1. When was the last time an Australian co-production achieved that? Oh, yeah. Hopefully the ABC – which is pretty good, but far from infallible – has learned something from that.

  10. Townsend Ruth

    I agree with ShiteSherlock that some ABC short and sassy comedic stuff has been great. I loved Laid, the Strange Calls, Lowdown and the absolutely excellent, Hollowmen. I liked Stupid Stupid Man and quite liked It’s a Date. But why we can’t produce drama like the US I just don’t know.

  11. Jan Forrester

    Thanks for this thoughtfulness, Byron. Thanks to those who mentioned Its a Date, I laughed a lot and was moved too by human foibles. I could see the possibilities in Upper Middle Bogan, especially when Grandma unwound with the bogans at the racetrack. (Is there something happening in Melbourne)? Lets develop that writing! And some of the others mentioned here. But they are a long way from some of the best of US stuff. BUT why is no one mentioning the dark, tough and wonderful Nordic (and Israeli) police and security series that SBS has the nouse to buy. Even Americans are turning on to it (and of course making their own version). Thanks for the pointer to Lynden Barber’s article. I don’t know if Australian production houses are still averse to cooperation, they have been in the past, hence they lost a package of possible international money for local production – was it a decade ago?

  12. Matters Peter

    Do your reviewers watch the ABC or SBS?

    1. Byron Bache

      Peter,
      I can’t speak for Laurence, but I watch pretty much everything. This piece alone references five different local ABC productions and one on SBS, plus a host of other overseas shows that have aired on both networks. So in short: yes.

  13. Daemon

    In the old days, we had some really good quality Australian drama on television, in the days when people who had the money could claim a fairly large tax benefit by supporting the making of that good television. Unfortunately, to use the word good and Australian in the one sentence referring to television as the subject is to use an oxymoron.

    That having been said in my opinion we are getting the television we deserve since we are not competent as a nation to question the manufacturers/producers of such trite rubbish, nor do we look as though we will change that any time soon as long as well over 80% of television in Australia is reproduced crap from the United States of America led to a fund a free trade agreement held against as by the World Trade Organisation.

    As long as we allow our governments to suck up to the United States in an effort to win the right to pick up crumbs off the floor, we have no right to complain about the crap we are fed which they are pleased to call “entertainment”.

    I have no idea what any of the commercial programmes anyone has spoken about, and I once saw a Foxtel box, I rather like sitting in front of the ABC being educated, though if the particular program doesn’t hold my interest, I find a book helps.

    Naturally, I could not say that about a person who actually watches commercial television as the likelihood of them being able to read is almost non-existent. Though it has to be said, that I did once see my next-door neighbour living in a printed television guide to find out what time Bathurst started that Sunday. From memory, that was 1995.

    I was also once told what a Kardashian was, since I had appeared confused in a discussion with another Star Trek fan. I do not watch Doctor Who.

  14. Daemon

    I really am going to have to check more carefully after I dictate a passage. my next door neighbour was in fact “looking” not “living”, in a television guide.

  15. Patrick Brosnan

    Call me a “nostalgist” but I don’t accept the golden age premise. Each of the decades since TV became mainstream have had their classics. The tendency for a generation to evaluate the present as groundbreaking or unique is well documented and rather tiresome. Personally, I think that Twin Peaks is the only show in living memory that seriously disrupted the medium and while at the same time being wildly popular.

  16. Dingoes Breakfast

    I think they must keep all the good stuff because what they are feeding us is garbage.

  17. Peter Sinclair

    read half the article and I find the style very dated. Just say what yu think and move on. Regarding the general point – Australian TV has always struggled because it’s alway a D grade imitation of American stuff. Until we find our own style nothing will improve. It’s amazing that after all the assistance the industry has been given over many years that all the so called creative geniuses have rarely had anything like an original idea between them. I have to go back decades to find anything of quality- in the 60s we showed potential al la Mavis Bramston; the 70s had No. 96; 80s, Colin Carpenter Show and the 2000s Packed to the Rafters. The rest of it is embarrassing rubbish. Usually because most of our shows are derivative rubbish I sadly begin to think we should just give up on our industry and import everything. come on creative geniuses , have a fair dinkum go!

  18. Ian Cuthbertson

    As former TV editor at The Australian I no longer have advance access to programs, a condition that rarely troubles me. So I can’t compare Wentworth to Orange but your spiel sounds very much like major cultural cringe to me. I thought Wentworth astonishing – for you it’s less than Days of Our Lives and Cluedo. Also, the picture you used for Orange omits her, and nowhere in your piece do you mention that an important character in Orange is played by Kate Mulgrew, last seen hurtling around in space for seven long years as the redoubtable Katherine Janeway at the helm of the good ship Voyager. I look forward to comparing the programs. As we all know the transcendent brilliance of Star Trek alumni tends to be thin on the ground. But look, surprise me. Bring it on. I just hope you haven’t fallen for American Beauty at the expense of Wentworth’s roses.

    1. Byron Bache

      Ian,

      Kate Mulgrew is indeed incredible. But seriously, cultural cringe? The ingrained, reflexive habit we have in this country of ignoring real criticism and dismissing it as “cultural cringe” is the reason our cultural landscape is full of Wentworths (and Beautiful Kates) instead of Orange is the New Blacks and American Beautys).

      Most Australian television critics are just cheerleaders. And indeed, the most glowing review of Wentworth was by Michael Idato, who was employed on the show as a consultant.

  19. Dogs breakfast

    Byron, I’m no expert at TV, but I thought it worth reading this as I thought it might be about the fact that with all the channels we now have, it is incredibly difficult to fill in an evening on the box without resorting to taped programs, iview or whatever is your preferred method of getting content that isn’t on when you can watch.

    A quick peruse of the current TV schedule will prove no surprise that ratings might be at an all time low. Most of it is unwatchable, and I’m even often resorting to re-runs of comedies.

    But your article seems to miss what is a prime point re the US phenomenon, which based on other reading is that a host of these breakthrough programs in America were due to genuine risk takers, mostly from pay TV. HBO and others, weren’t they behind Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and so many other genuine TV events. (Game of Thrones, so watchable, an epic TV adventure, but not available here through free to air) As far as I can tell, US TV was as moribund as our commercial channels are now until the risk takers came along.

    By the way, I do recall one series made in Australia that stands out as the best thing we have produced. The ‘Phoenix’ series (were there 2?) were comparable with the best that America has produced. They stand out like the proverbials in our TV history. Nothing we have done before or since comes close.

  20. Rupert Moloch

    “Once upon a time”, Australian television was very good indeed.

    [email protected] fairly nails it: 10BA tax concessions for mini series & drama production, & local content rules for Aus tv grandfathered some brilliant achievements. I’m thinking specifically to Scales of Justice & Body Surfer but there were many others (a glance at the IMDB entry for either of those demonstrates how comprehensively they’ve been forgotten). Market deregulation & considerable international pressure have scuppered both those policies.

    And of course its significant that resources have been progressively pulled from the ABC, over successive federal govts.

    On the subject of international co-production: ATV-7 partnered in at least the very first series of Black Adder, way back when. In retrospect that seems a little visionary.

  21. Perfect storytelling:Redfern Now‘s second season soars | Wires and Lights

    […] Orange is the New Black, Wentworth is the new beige: what’s wrong with Australian TV? […]

  22. David Howe

    Gene pools or meme pools or both? OITNB is one of the best things I’ve seen in ages, the acting and writing is so freaking good. But to be fair Kohan had a good run with Weeds initially too and almost every good TV series seems to have purple patch, usually when the premise and characters resonate with aspects of popular culture. As for Oz TV, if we spend as much money or apply ourselves creatively our stuff shines but it seems the money runs out too quickly and the creative juices dry up early. And maybe the writing sucks too but not always.

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