Drama behind bars: Wentworth and Orange is the New Black

Drama behind bars: Wentworth and Orange is the New Black

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
July 21, 2015

Trendspotting

Viewers are doing time with two dramas set inside women’s prisons, but is there room for both Wentworth and Orange is the New Black?

There was a splash of colour in the Outstanding Drama Series category when the nominees for the 67th Emmy Awards were announced last week.

Orange is the New Black (OITNB, main image) will face competition from Better Call Saul, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards and Mad Men for the prize, which will be handed out on September 20.

Previously considered a comedy – it was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at last year’s Emmys – the Netflix series was pushed into the drama category when the Television Academy defined episodic comedies as shows with a running time of 30 minutes or less. Each episode of OITNB runs for 60 minutes.

But while its running time may set it apart from other comedies, its comedic tones and storylines are exactly what set it apart from other dramas, particularly those it’s up against for this year’s award.

Orange is the New Black is available in all Netflix territories
Orange is the New Black is available in all Netflix territories

OITNB creator Jenji Kohan said as much when reacting to news of the show’s drama nomination: “We’re proud to be the misfits who don’t fit in – comedy, drama, nobody knows what to do with us … and we like it that way. No matter what you call us, we’re honoured to be recognised by the Academy with this nomination. On behalf of the entire cast, the writers, producers and crew, and so many others that work tirelessly on this show, this is really cool and we thank you.”

It is also its comedy roots that set OITNB apart from the other women’s prison-set drama currently on television. Wentworth, which airs in Australia on Foxtel’s SoHo network and is also in its third season, is described as a modern adaptation of the iconic Prisoner series, which originally aired from 1979 to 1986.

This reboot – which debuted in May 2013, just two months before season one of OITNB landed on Netflix – is set in Wentworth Correctional Centre, with each episode focusing on a different character and how they cope in a women’s prison living under warring criminals fighting for supremacy over the inmates.

Similarly, OITNB also uses individual episodes to focus on inmates’ backstories as groups of criminals fight over who rules the wings of Litchfield Penitentiary.

But that’s where the similarities end, at least according to Wentworth star Danielle Cormack, who also points to the American series’ comedic undertones as a reason why there’s room on the television landscape for two series delving into the world of women’s prisons.

Speaking ahead of launch of the third season of Wentworth on the UK’s Channel 5, Cormack said: “I love Orange is the New Black. I think it’s been the best thing for our show as well, so I say that with a lot of gratitude towards great television now but also in a very selfish way.

The original Wentworth (left) and its Dutch remake Celblok H, which airs on SBS 6
The original Wentworth (left) and its Dutch remake Celblok H, which airs on SBS 6

“Having two successful prison dramas on TV at the same time that have a very different take on prison life, I think they work very well off each other. Orange is the New Black explores the minutiae of prison life in an American way and society in America with much more of a comedic bent and Wentworth, I think, explores the greater, more dramatic arcs. There’s these sweeping, broad statements about being top dog, about corrupt governors and everything, and it’s much more dramatic and people say more gritty.”

Cormack, who plays top dog Bea Smith in the FremantleMedia Australia-produced series, adds: “But I think they serve each other really well. Wentworth wouldn’t have had the overseas attention if Orange is the New Black hadn’t played first off, and perhaps vice versa.

“So I’m really happy to walk side by side with Orange is the New Black and I applaud their storytelling. I find their take on prison life extraordinary because it’s taught me about other aspects of what it means to be incarcerated, and most of the crew that I work with have done extensive research about what it’s like to be locked away for long periods of time with other people and our take on it is very different.

“So cheers to all the people who have created Orange is the New Black. I love the show.”

With OITNB available on all Netflix platforms around the world, Wentworth has also proved extremely popular on international screens. Since its launch, it has aired in 88 countries, including France, Japan, Poland, Brazil, Canada, Korea and Sweden.

Furthermore, the series has been the subject of two foreign-language adaptations – Celblok H in the Netherlands, which has aired for two seasons on SBS 6, and Block B – Unter Arrest on Germany’s RTL.

Despite their similarities, there’s plenty to separate OITNB and Wentworth, and with fourth seasons for both already locked up, audiences can look forward to spending more time behind bars with these two series.

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