We’ve all been feeling pretty let down by Orange is the New Black these past couple of seasons. The sexy, fresh prison-dramedy was once the darling of Netflix’s Original content, but in the last year, has been criticized for their portrayals of racial injustice within the American prison system, which many believe (myself included) crossed a line. Their most recent season, which premiered in June, was definitely an improvement, but still was a mixed bag according to some reviewers (inserting shameless plug for my previous post).
For those of us who miss the Golden Age when OITNB first came out and swept us all off our feet, I have a solution. It’s called Wentworth, and basically it’s Orange is the New Black, but darker.
OITNB versus Wentworth
Meet Bea Smith, Wentworth Prison’s newest edition. Like Piper when she first arrived at Litchfield, Bea walks timidly and clutches her few belongings for comfort. Charged with the attempted murder of her abusive husband, Bea sits on a store of untapped aggression. She has a quiet but guarded nature, where she’s only dangerous if you force her hand. Bea, despite herself, flourishes in prison, and her growth from newbie to Top Dog is reminiscent of Walter White’s rise to Heinsberg infamy.
Even at Piper’s highest position of power (i.e. her brief stint as a Prison Panties Pimp), she isn’t nearly as powerful as she believes. It becomes abundantly clear that Piper is the least compelling character on the OITNB roster, and she practically disappears into the background in this past season. Bea, meanwhile, becomes an integral part of Wentworth’s prison hierarchy, to the point where she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. She can’t back out of the spotlight even if she wants to.
Don’t worry, no women’s prison drama would be complete without some sexy, badass lesbian leads. And everyone loves Alex Vause, but that’s just because they haven’t been introduced to Wentworth’s Top Dog, Franky Doyle.
A former reality-cooking star with some anger issues, Franky exudes an air of wicked confidence that is somehow intimidating and sexually arousing. Alex Vause has more of a moody, “too cool for school” vibe, and Franky is easily more charismatic. She is without a doubt a fan-favorite, and her character arc throughout the show is incredibly well-executed. Throughout Orange, it doesn’t seem like Alex has much room for personal growth, and most of her development occurs in relation to her romance with Piper. But Franky’s journey through Wentworth is an emotional ride for her and the viewers.
Also, you know how Orange is trying (unsuccessfully) to portray their C.O.s as more sympathetic characters? They should take notes from Wentworth. The key here is that we’re not just getting snippets of backstory, we follow Wentworth‘s guards as actual A, B, and C stories. We watch them struggle through their own set of prison politics, and see how far they are willing to go for the sake of self-preservation.
The frustrating part is that I can’t completely geek out and give away all the sweet details about my favorite leading C.O.s, but look out for Vera Bennett and Joan Ferguson. Vera, my pride and joy, starts out as a timid, sweet little officer, but transforms into this strong, hardened leader (who makes me proud every season). Ferguson? Oh, if only I could say more about Ferguson. Wentworth hits its stride once the writers introduce one of the strongest antagonists on television. Picture Gus Fring of Breaking Bad, but a colder, smarter, more twisted, more sociopathic version. It gets real in this prison when she enters the picture.
Wentworth could write a handbook on killing off major leads. (To all the Game of Thrones fans about to object, I haven’t seen your show, and to be fair, there can be two handbooks). But even with shows like Walking Dead (which I have seen part of), often times their major character deaths come off as a power play, for the sake of shock value and not a natural progression of the story.
More importantly, it’s not the deaths themselves that matter, but the aftermath. I’ve seen some shaky recoveries post-character-murder on certain shows, but I think the key with Wentworth is that the ensemble is comprised of so many strong, captivating women that there is more than enough talent to carry on. Anyone who watched the season four finale knows this is true.
Orange may have messed up by trying choosing the comedic route over straight drama. It was fun for the early seasons, but as the storylines attempt to explore more progressive, serious themes, the humorous moments feel shoe-horned and at times, insensitive. Wentworth sneaks in some comic relief, but isn’t afraid to go dark. Very, very dark.
Because of this, each season grips you from episode one to the finale. I will swear on the Bible that I have not made it through a season finale without at least one audible gasp. This show is an emotional roller coaster, and you better jump on the bandwagon before Netflix suddenly pulls it from their queue.