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.
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, aReef 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.
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 Orange, Wentworth 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.