Danielle Cormack as Bea Smith in Wentworth.

Premiering at 8.30 tonight on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, Wentworth is a mix of adaptation and appropriation. Borrowing but explicitly not remaking the iconic Australian drama Prisoner, the series follows Bea Smith (Danielle McCormack) as she enters Wentworth Correctional Centre. She quickly encounters a rogue’s gallery of fierce women. Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva) is young, manipulative, and according to Foxtel’s promotional materials, “a GenY lesbian”; Doreen Anderson (Shareena Clanton) is a kind but wary optimist; Liz Birdsworth (Celia Ireland) is a protective den mother and peer worker for the inmates; and Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade) is the ruthless, terrifying, 50-something prison tyrant.

The question for Wentworth is now how it defines itself as a singular entity.

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The shadow of Prisoner‘s continuing legacy (it repeats on the 111 Hits channel) will hang over it. Those who don’t know the show well–which admittedly includes myself–will be better-served knowing that this new series explores one which existed in Prisoner. In the original, Bea Smith is the top dog, and as such Wentworth sets out to discover how a suburban mother developed into this powerful figure.

The series’ first episode sets out to cultivate a certain tone and atmosphere. However, at many turns it can’t help but feel too much like what we’ve seen before. Visual motifs from previous jail-based shows recur–expect plenty of sun casting shadows of bars and barbed wire.

Wentworth also seeks to rest upon the edge of contemporary TV drama, but is a little too clinical in its visual approach for the material that intends to confront us to effectively do so. An early scene of Bea accidentally intruding upon lesbian sex is oddly bloodless. In its desire to convey the coldness and bleakness of prison it stumbles at times into the trap of convention. The series would do well to attack the show with a fresher visual angle. Invest some eroticism and romanticism into the prison environment; it needn’t be so sterile, and given the visceral nature of some of the show’s content it would be fascinating to see it move towards a more stylised version of itself.

Performances are good across the board as one would expect from a well-produced drama such as this. The main cast, also including Catherine McClements as prison governor Meg Jackson as well as officers Will Jackson (Robbie Magasiva), Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson) and Matthew Fletcher (Aaron Jeffery), each give a few early insights into their characters. As with any first episode, however, the series is too rushed to flesh out many of its characters beyond an initial sketch, something I am assured will be remedied in future episodes which will better explore each character’s history.

Wentworth feels hewn of the ‘gritty drama’ rock of which Australian film and television are so fond. This is not a bad thing, necessarily. Provided the show becomes a little more breathable it could develop into an excellent modern prison drama. I am fascinated, also, to discover what the series can say about contemporary femininity. Given the premise, there’s great potential for exploration of some of the archetypes present as well as female anti-heroes and villains, both of which are all too rarely done well.

In spite of occasionally misjudged scenes (an early one in the back of a police van springs to mind) and some issues getting its handle on tone, Wentworth shows much promise. And while the first episode is more or less just fine, it’s entertaining and formative enough to hook the viewer in for a second. Hopefully it will develop into its own entity in time; the prospect of a high quality, female-driven Australian drama series that isn’t obsessed with romantic relationships is too good to let slip by.

[youtube width=”555″ height=”312″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJvt75gLjKE[/youtube]

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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