When talking about the who’s who of female prison shows, there are two contemporary examples at the head of the pack. Orange is the New Black originates in the United States, and Wentworth is crafted in Australia. Which leads the pack?
The power of Netflix has brought both Orange is the New Black and Wentworth to international audiences. Both shows have garnered critical acclaim in their own right; however, is it possible to compare the two?
Orange is the New Black follows the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a privileged woman who went through a bad girl lesbian phase – at least that is how the story is set up. She reunites with her ex-lover in prison after both are convicted of decade old drug related charges. Piper has to give up her charmed life engagement to Larry (Jason Biggs) and serve her sentence.
Wentworth is the reimagining of the cult hit Prisoner: Cell Block H. It follows the story of Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), a middle class woman in an abusive relationship who has attempted to kill her husband Harry (Jake Ryan). She is tossed into a foreign and scary world that she has never encountered. She has been forced to leave her 15 year old daughter behind with her physically and psychologically abusive husband.
It is obvious that both shows come from a very different perspective. Orange is the New Black has a much more comedic edge particularly in the first season. Some of the characters border on exploitative when it comes the individuals they represent. Wentworth has a darker realism of prison life from the beginning. Bea Smith is tormented and used as a pawn of the inmate hierarchy from the moment she reaches her unit. This different approach complicates the way each show evolves with time.
The casts of both shows deal with some similarities that seem universal to prisons: a population fragmented into crews, and a constant fight for power. Both show that the system is bent toward punishment not rehabilitation. Both show that life is difficult for parties on both sides of the bars, and that most did not get into corrections because of their love of it.
While both shows have their merits, Wentworth does push forward as a better hard hitting and suspenseful drama versus Orange is the New Black. While Orange is the New Black does have a greater saturation of comedy in its writing, the superficiality and stereotypical nature of the characters brings its overall score down. Watch both on Netflix and choose for yourself!
P.S. You can find the complete series of Prisoner: Cell Block H on Youtube!