Tag Archives: Oz

Drama behind bars

As Prison Break returns to television after an eight-year absence to bolster the line-up of jail-set dramas on air, DQ explores why viewers love to lock themselves up with convicts.

Television drama has the power to transport viewers to exotic new worlds, turn the clock back to visit the past or fast-forward to futuristic fantasies.

But there’s one location in particular that can be a hotbed of action, thrills, drama and romance, despite being a less-than-salubrious setting.

From Australia’s Prisoner: Cell Block H and Bad Girls in the UK to German soap Hinter Gittern –Der Frauenknast and French Canada’s Unité 9, prison dramas can send audiences to a place full of intrigue, yet one most people hope never to visit in real life.

The return of US drama Prison Break to Fox early in 2017, eight years after the last season concluded in 2009, bolsters a trend that suggests viewers can’t get enough of life behind bars and the diverse cast of characters who are forced to eat and sleep together in decidedly close confines.

One of the biggest prison dramas of recent years has been Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that debuted in 2013 and now comprises four seasons. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the show is set in the all-female Litchfield Penitentiary and has proven such a hit for the streaming service that, in February this year, it placed a three-season order taking the show through to 2019.

Disclosure of viewing figures has never been Netflix’s strong point, but that massive commitment points to Orange is the New Black being among the platform’s biggest hits. Similarly, Penny Win, head of drama at Australian pay TV broadcaster Foxtel, described the network’s own prison drama Wentworth as a “ratings blockbuster” when she confirmed it would be back for a fifth season in 2017. Wentworth also airs in 141 countries around the world and has spawned remakes in Belgium (Gent-West), Germany (Block B – Unter Arrest) and the Netherlands (Celblok H).

Aussie 'blockbuster' Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017
Aussie ‘blockbuster’ Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017

Also set in a women’s prison, Wentworth was conceived as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran on Network Ten down under between 1979 and 1986. The new series, which debuted in 2013 on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) as she is forced to learn how to survive in the eponymous prison.

“A prison is a hothouse for drama because it’s such a concentration of story,” says Jo Porter, FremantleMedia Australia director of drama and Wentworth executive producer. “People have broken the rules and why they break the rules is often interesting. They’re having to face the consequences of their choices and they cannot escape them.

“In Wentworth, you enter another world through Bea Smith. You cannot help but think, ‘How would I cope if life had dealt me a different hand?’ We take the audience by the hand with these different women. There are archetypal big characters – they are recognisable and that’s why as an audience we care for them.”

Wentworth writer Marcia Gardner continues: “A prison drama is a safe way of delving into an unknown, dangerous world. It’s also a microcosm of any society – but within a confined space, everything’s heightened. It has the potential to be a powder keg of emotion. That’s why it has the potential for drama.”

Like the prisoners, writers on these shows also find themselves locked up within the confines of the prison grounds, unable to escape into the world that surrounds them in terms of story. But the revolving prison door serves as a perfect way to say goodbye to some characters while also introducing new ones.

“We don’t have the outside world, we’re in a confined space, but one of the virtues of Wentworth is the cast can come and go and we can bring in guests,” Gardner notes of the series, which is distributed by FremantleMedia International. “People get released; people get convicted and come in. There’s a means to refresh and bring interesting people in. We have quite a large core cast compared with most shows – there’s up to 74 main cast members, so there’s always something going on because we have got to make sure everyone has a character arc or story.”

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Iceland’s Fangar (Prisoners) follows a woman convicted of the attempted murder of her father

If Litchfield’s orange or Wentworth’s blue jumpsuits don’t appeal, how about yellow? Inmates featured in Spain’s Vis a Vis (aka Locked Up, pictured top) must don the brightly coloured outfits when they join the population of Cruz del Sur prison.

 

The show follows Macarena (Maggie Civantos), a young woman who commits tax fraud and must quickly navigate the emotional shock of being in prison and the complicated relationships among the inmates. It is produced by Globomedia for Antena 3 and distributed by Imagina International Sales.

With Breaking Bad among his inspirations, co-creator Alex Pina says a prison is the perfect setting for a television thriller: “A prison is supposed to be too rough a place for many other things but it is perfect for a thriller. No character can ever be certain they are safe from every other character.

“And creating those characters is a richer process when they are in prison. They are not normal people going to buy bread or walking to work. They are criminals, murderers and thieves. They speak and behave very differently from an ordinary citizen and this is very interesting from the perspective of writing – and it’s also very entertaining.”

While some prison dramas are entirely confined behind bars, others – including Orange is the New Black, Vis a Vis and HBO’s recent hit miniseries The Night Of – give viewers considerable time on day release. The same is true of Icelandic series Fangar (aka Prisoners), in which a woman is convicted of the attempted murder of her father. She is sent to a women’s prison, where she harbours a dark secret that could tear apart her family – including her politician sister – and set her free.

“Originally it was just a prison series but as it developed, it became more of a family drama,” director Ragnar Bragason says of the show. “The women’s prison is not a standard prison – it’s the only women’s prison in Iceland and only holds 10 or 12 inmates at once. There are no uniforms and they make their own meals and watch TV together. It’s more like a dysfunctional family than a prison but it has the same hierarchies and violence.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a strict prison drama. What was interesting was to go into the world of politics, society and power and to mix that with the other aspect of the prison and criminal justice system. The dynamic of the series is the friction between the two.”

Alex Pina
Alex Pina

Work on the show, which is produced by Mystery Productions for RUV and distributed by Global Screen, included 30 days filming at the prison, which presented its own challenges.

 

“We expected it to be nice and easy but it was so small,” admits producer Davíd Óskar Ólafsson. “We had so many crew members – by the end, everyone was pleased to be released. But we were extremely lucky to use it. The prison had been closed down because they’re building a new mixed prison. We remodelled it a little bit and kept it close to what it was. It made a huge difference that we didn’t have to build it or make another location look like a prison.”

However, Wentworth producer FremantleMedia Australia had to build that show’s set from the ground up, not once but twice, as production moved to a new location at the end of season three. “It’s quite claustrophobic when you get in there,” reveals production designer Kate Saunders. “The cells are quite small because they are in reality. We’ve had to be quite inventive with the camera ports and walls that float. There are lots of bits of the set that float [to allow cameras in]. We certainly learnt as we went along.

“There’s not a lot of things we can dress on the walls to make it interesting so we used lots of textures with brick and concrete render. It’s not like you can hang up a picture or add wallpaper. We used strong colours – dark greens, greys and blues – to suggest different areas. We don’t have a lot of outside light so everything is very enclosed. The prisoners cannot see outside, except if they look up at the sky, and we cannot see inside.”

Much like in period dramas, props in prison series must be extremely specific, as Saunders found out when she first tried to dress the Wentworth sets. “Everything they have inside a prison is up to certain standards – like the phones, they’re much more solid – and everything is anti-ligature so prisoners can’t hang themselves,” she explains. “It was difficult when we first started because the people who make those items wouldn’t talk to us until we got the greenlight from [government department] Corrections Victoria.

“They also have special cigarette lighters that don’t have an open flame and specific speaker grills and intercom points. It’s a whole new world of stuff you didn’t know existed. But once we got in, most people were so lovely – it’s been fantastic. Once you open up that world it’s amazing, but you have to find it.”

You’ve probably noticed that this feature has overwhelmingly discussed dramas set in women’s prisons as opposed to men’s. So why is it that, with the exception of Prison Break, The Night Of and HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz [see below], prison dramas tend to focus on female incarceration? The reason, it seems, is universal.

“When we were doing research, the prison guards we spoke to who had worked in both male and female prisons said that, physically, male prisons are stronger and there’s violence,” Ólafsson says. “But, mentally, female prisons are much rougher. They said it’s more difficult to work with women who have lost their kids – and in Iceland the prison was actually next to a kindergarten.”

Similarly, Wentworth’s Porter explains that why male battles are physical, women use psychological games to gain the upper hand: “They’re hard to control and manage and are more unpredictable. The truth of that is what’s so fascinating. Many of these women have been given a tough hand from their circumstances so they have to choose how they’re going to defend themselves and it’s a real defining time in their lives. It’s great fodder for high-stakes drama.”

With Orange is the New Black and Wentworth set to run and run, it seems viewers can look forward to a lengthy stay inside, whichever show they prefer.

Vis a Vis’s Pina sums up the popularity of prison dramas when he adds: “At the end of the day, evil bastards, uncertainty and tension, combined with everyday stories of girls with a sharp tongue and constant use of black humour, always seems to work in fiction.”

Prison box-2

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The Walking Dead reopens violence debate

the-walking-dead-64
The Walking Dead’s latest episode has sparked a social media furore

Kevin Lygo, director of television at UK broadcaster ITV, used a Bafta event this week to call for more “happy, life-affirming drama.”

He’s not the first senior figure in the industry to make this plea. Last year at the C21 Drama Summit, StudioCanal’s Rola Bauer also argued that the industry was focusing too much of its creative energy on scripted series with a bleak worldview.

To some extent, the emphasis on dark storytelling can be explained by the audience’s continued fascination with crime drama. But in recent years it has been amplified by the emergence of horror, fantasy, superhero and hard-boiled period dramas as stalwarts of the scripted genre.

More than eve, graphic, emotionally upsetting violence has become a core constituent of TV drama – especially in pay TV and SVoD. And for now it seems to be proving popular with international audiences.

Take AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, which returned to schedules at the weekend. Episode one of season seven, written by Scott M Gimple and directed by Greg Nicotero, was about as bleak as TV viewing can get, with arch-villain Negan beating one of the show’s best-loved characters to death with a baseball bat embedded with barbed wire.

The episode attracted a lot of criticism from people who felt the show had finally gone too far. But at time of writing it doesn’t look like The Walking Dead has suffered in terms of ratings. Around 17 million people watched the show on AMC in the US and a further 1.43 million watched it on Fox in the UK. The latter was Fox’s best-rated show in its 14-year history.

Nicotero’s explanation of the episode’s uncompromising brutality was as follows: “It’s graphic and it’s horrible. We wanted to push it a little bit. When we shot the season five premiere, we had everybody at the trough and we went down the line and you saw these guys being murdered and drained of blood. That was purely a mechanism just to show how bad the people in Terminus really were. With Negan, you only have to see that once or twice to know this guy means business.

“The haunting remnants of that episode are similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and the futility of trying to step in. [Andrew Lincoln’s lead character] Rick Grimes is powerless to stop this and that’s something we’ve never seen on the show. I think the violence and brutality are a part of the helplessness. Seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence for me.”

The audience’s appetite for violence is also evident in numerous other shows, as outlined below. So the big question is, how much further can the TV industry go in this direction? Will viewers get fed up with violent drama and start demanding the upbeat shows Lygo would like to see? Or will writers and directors keep finding new ways to turn our stomachs?

gameofthronesGame of Thrones: The Walking Dead’s status as the most violent show on TV is challenged by David Benioff and DB Weiss’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series. Rape, mutilation, torture and massacres have been regular themes through the HBO series. But while the more outrageous scenes have their critics, the audience has stayed supremely strong throughout. Echoing TWD’s most recent episode, arguably the most shocking scene was when Gregor Clegane crushed The Red Viper’s skull with his bare hands during a gruesome duel. There’s something about seeing a person’s head smashed in that is particularly disturbing – and it’s an increasingly common image.

hannibal1_2553735bHannibal: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal makes the original Silence of the Lambs movie look like a spin-off of Shaun the Sheep. Of the many grotesque sequences in the NBC series, one of the most gut-wrenching is when serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter gives Mason Verger the drug PCP and then tells him to peel off his own face with a piece of broken mirror. In a state of drug-induced euphoria, Mason complies, and afterwards feeds the pieces to his dogs, except for his nose, which he himself eats. And that’s only the beginning… Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons but attracted an extremely loyal audience throughout its run.

sons-of-anarchy-seasoSons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter’s acclaimed biker gang drama was another painful piece of television to watch, though it didn’t stop the show becoming a runaway hit for FX. For some, the worst moment was when the villainous Damon Pope burned another man’s daughter alive and forced him to watch (season five). For others, it was the brutal murder of Opie Winston, who had his head bashed in with a lead pipe by a group of prisoners, egged on by a bunch of prison wardens (season five). Sutter returned to graphic violence in his next show The Bastard Executioner, though this one only lasted a season. Questioned by the press about the use of violence in this show, he said: “My mandate, as it was on Sons of Anarchy, is the same for this – the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, it always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. That’s sort of my same mandate here. There are ways to portray that violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous, so I sort have the same mandate with this show.”

american-horror-story-hotelAmerican Horror Story: With a name like that, you’d feel shortchanged if Ryan Murphy’s AHS anthology series didn’t scare the bejesus out of you. But there are some especially excruciating images in this successful FX drama. In AHS: Hotel, one of the most disturbing scenes sees a drug addict check into a hotel room, whereupon he is raped by a creature covered in wax-like skin wearing a disturbing looking dildo. Murphy has attempted to explain the scene as a commentary on the hell of addiction. However, even with this story rationalisation it’s pretty warped stuff. Sexual brutalisation ranks alongside head-smashing as one of the TV industry’s preferred ways of horrifying its audience.

the-cast-of-vikingsVikings: Period dramas on TV used to be sedate stuff – carriages, elaborate hats, dancing and the occasional shiny cutlass. But series like Starz’s Spartacus and History’s Vikings have reinvented the genre. The latter, created by Michael Hirst, is a big hit for the A+E-owned channel. Not surprisingly, given the subject, Vikings has regular recourse to violence. One example was the slow-motion scene when lead character Ragnar Lothbrok ritually carved open his enemy Jarl Borg from behind. This style of death is called the Blood Eagle, because the victim’s lungs are pulled out through his back and laid across his shoulders like wings.

the-strainThe Strain: Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on their own novels, this FX vampire drama has some truly grotesque moments. One of the most famous is when an infected worm forces its way into the eyeball of the hero’s wife. The image was so revolting that an ad campaign featuring the image had to be pulled after complaints. Just as gruesome was the sight of vampire elders feeding off a human prisoner in season two, a scene that also carried sado-masochistic overtones. The show will end after its fourth season, but it’s a meandering narrative rather than uncompromising violence that caused this.

daredevil-the-punisherDaredevil: Superhero series and movies have started to deploy more graphic violence in the pursuit of audience. The Netflix/Marvel show Daredevil (created by Drew Goddard, based on the Stan Lee/Bill Everett creation) is a case in point. Although it has received a lot of critical acclaim, the show doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to graphic violent imagery. Bad guy Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) is especially disturbing, beating someone to death and decapitating him on his first appearance in the show. In season two, the violence is increased with the arrival of The Punisher (pictured). Time Magazine is critical of the way the show has gone, arguing that: “Daredevil just wants to dole out fun doses of extreme gore on the path to an endpoint on a business plan.”

boardwalk-empire-buscemiBoardwalk Empire: HBO’s acclaimed mobster series is another drama that attracted criticism for its portrayal of violence. Again, you can’t make a mobster movie without breaking heads, but there is a legitimate question over whether the portrayal of violence was a) accurate and b) necessary. Showrunner Terence Winter’s response to questions about violence was to say: “Murder is ugly, it looks like what it looks like.” Like many of his peers, Winter justifies the shows violence by saying it is used in context. “We’re not gratuitous,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve never said, ‘We need a murder here or how can we make this scene more bloody?’” But “[One of the murders] is as graphic as it gets and I don’t know why we would want to sugarcoat that. I don’t want to make it look antiseptic or like a video game where they are no consequences.”

followingThe Following: Fox’s 2013 series stars James Purefoy as a brilliant, psychotic serial killer who communicates with other serial killers and activates a cult of believers following his every command. The show was created by Kevin Williamson, who built his reputation with movie franchises like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer before turning his attention to TV. Gory in the extreme, the show was labelled “a showcase for gratuitous carnage and cruelty that might best be described as pornographic” by The Washington Times. Chasing Purefoy’s serial killer is a cop played by Kevin Bacon, who gave this assessment of the show: “We were trying to make a thriller that scares people and keeps them on the edge of their seats. It was brutal, but the people who watched it seemed to not have a problem.” The series lasted three seasons.

ozOz: HBO’s Oz is a reminder that violence isn’t new to our screens. Launched in 1997, the show was set in a maximum-security prison facility populated by the kind of people you hope never see parole. In 2001, The Guardian’s review of season four said: “The previous three seasons of Oz have featured poisoning, lynching, burning, shooting, beating, eye-gouging and crucifixion. The actors admit they find it tough-going sometimes. ‘I have difficulty watching some scenes,’ says [actor] Edie Falco. At times even writer Tom Fontana finds it all too much. He claims that he closed his eyes while penning some scenes because, ‘I didn’t want to see myself writing the words I had to produce.’” The Guardian’s conclusion, however, was that the ultra-violent show was “never gratuitous” and that its primary goal was to shine a light on “political cynicism and a morally bankrupt penal system.”

The US leads the way in terms of the depiction of violence on the small screen, but the rest of the world has been catching on. Series like Gomorrah (Italy), Braquo (France), Underbelly (Australia), Valley of the Wolves (Turkey), Epitafios (Argentina) and The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) have all had some tough-to-watch moments. Ironically, given Lygo’s concerns, so have ITV’s recent dramas – notably Marcella and Paranoid. In the latter, the show opens with a graphic sequence in which a mother is stabbed to death in a playground in front of her child. The Radio Times ran an interesting comment piece on the message that dramas like this are sending out about to women about the threat of violence. However, the real message of today’s TV dramas is that nobody is safe to go out anymore…

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