If you can't bear the thought of waiting until Orange Is the New Black returns in June, you're in luck. The Australian series Wentworth (available now on Netflix) is the perfect thing to fill that Orange-shaped hole in your heart.
Much like Orange, Wentworth begins with the incarceration of a first-time offender. But instead of smuggling drugs for her lesbian lover, Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) is sentenced to Wentworth Prison for the attempted murder of her abusive husband. While there, she finds herself in the middle of a power struggle between Jacs (Kris McQuade), the older top dog of the jail, and Franky (Nicole da Silva), the hot lesbian alpha pup who's not interested in giving up power. After the prison's governor (Australia's version of a warden) is killed during a riot, the administration cracks down on the inmates as they try to find out who committed the crime.
A gritty drama and mystery series rolled into one, Wentworth (which is based on the 1980s Australian show Prisoner) is just as good, if not better, than any of the big-name American cable dramas that have broken new ground in recent years. Here are nine reasons you should be watching:
1. It doesn't sugarcoat prison life There's no "dramedy" label here. Wentworth doesn't just veer into dark territory every once in a while; it resides there. Sure, there are flashes of humor, but the show's gritty violence is more in line with Breaking Bad or Oz than it is with Orange. Any single episode could feature a combination of gang beatings, mutilations, rape or murder. Whereas the ladies of Litchfield make prison life seem fairly bearable, Wentworth leaves viewers completely content to watch from outside the bars.
2. It's a perfect binge-watch Wentworth is edge-of-your-seat television in its purest form. Each episode is infused with its own sense of purpose, with endings that often leave you grabbing for the remote to flip to the next installment. Conflicts are resolved and questions answered in a timely manner that doesn't leave viewers frustrated or feeling short-changed. Best of all, even after one of the major plot lines comes to a definitive (and bloody) end in Season 1, the show takes a significant narrative turn in Season 2 while keeping the quality consistent. The second season introduces new characters (including a transgender inmate and a sadistic new governor), all of whom make the show even more compelling, as opposed to merely indicating that the writers are grasping at straws for plot lines.
3. The women are badass One of the joys of watching Wentworth is seeing Bea embrace, almost immediately, the dark side she never knew she had. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for viewers to root for Bea without reservation. But this is the standard on Wentworth. There isn't a single character who is too easily redeemed — a far cry from Litchfield, which seems to be the only prison in the world filled entirely with sympathetic women who are victims of socio-economic circumstance, rather than real criminals. Even at Orange's most serious moments, the characters are more soapy and colorful than they are substantive. But Wentworth doesn't shy away from the reality of the situation - that prisons are indeed filled with criminals and often bad people - which helps make the characters feel more real.
4. The guards are just as compelling as the prisoners The Wentworth staff is far more than behavioral enforcers hovering around the periphery. Each guard and governor is given as much attention and development as any of the inmates - and for good reason. Their lives inside and out of Wentworth are fascinating. There's the grieving widower spiraling into addiction as he finds out some unwanted information about his wife, and a female guard whose emotional development is stunted thanks to her abusive mother. Oh, and there's also some inmate-governor Sapphic sexual tension thrown in for good measure - including a dream sequence that's hotter than any Piper-Alex chapel sex.
5. The characters keep you guessing Any time you think you've got a firm grasp on a character in Wentworth, think again. All the characters (including the Wentworth staff and administration) reside in a moral gray area. And even the behavior of the more clear-cut villains is always contextualized (which doesn't necessarily make their actions excusable, but at least makes it understandable). The most conflicting character by far is Franky, who'll have you convinced she's pure evil in one episode and cheering (or swooning) for her in the next.
6. The stakes are incredibly high The problem with a lot of shows these days is that the world they live in is too safe. Walking Dead fans are prone to chanting, "If Daryl dies, we riot," when it's pretty clear that producers would never actually risk killing off their biggest cash cow - at least not until closer to the series' end. On crime shows, it's too easy to predict the killer or next victim based on who could be most easily removed from the ensemble and cause the least ripples. And on supernatural series, death fails to mean anything more than a rote plot device. But on Wentworth, anything is possible - which means anyone could be the next to go. The first season alone features three shocking deaths that dramatically change the direction and make-up of the entire series. That's because Wentworth doesn't use its setting to explore in-depth character studies or the effects of race and socio-economics on the trajectory of a person's life. It's more interested in mining the enduring human instinct of self-preservation in its most primal form: kill or be killed.
7. Boomer Wentworth is dark. So oppressively dark that at times it seems almost too much to bear. And then Boomer (Katrina Milosevic) walks in. There are a lot of incredibly complex and interesting characters in Wentworth - the peace-keeping Liz who will go to the ends of the Earth to ensure the best for the women of Wentworth, but sabotages all chances at personal success; or the wily Simmo, whose maternal instincts put her in constant conflict with her mob employers - but Boomer is not one of them. She's a simple creature whose volatile emotions are easily manipulated, making her the perfect fit as Franky's loyal attack dog. But Boomer's cluelessness is also her biggest charm, whether she's getting a makeover to help move on from her ex (who left her for her sister, BTW) or trying to find her inner vamp on the dance floor.
8. The outside world is expertly integrated Though early episodes of Wentworth are eerily similar to Orange, flashing back to an individual's life before being incarcerated, the drama soon drops the format altogether. Although Wentworth still uses flashbacks when necessary, the series also finds other ways to escape the suffocating claustrophobia of prison by incorporating characters' current outside lives. And in fact, some of the strongest moments take place outside the prison gates. The show follows the guards home, where they struggle with PTSD, questioning their sexual identity and trying to right the wrongs of their past. It gives insight into what the life of an inmate's child is like, when we see Bea's daughter's dangerous attempts to cope with the feelings of guilt and anger her mother's incarceration left her with. It also isn't afraid to let women leave the confines of the prison. When a character is granted parole, we get a full and heartbreaking story arc about the challenges of adjusting to the outside (unlike the single, brief scene and verbal exposition Orange gave Taystee).
9. Wentworth is better than Orange is the New Black At the end of the day, we love the women of Litchfield and Wentworth, but for those who only have room in your heart for one group of inmates, the choice is easy: Wentworth all the way.
The first two seasons of Wentworth are available on Netflix now. What are you waiting for?