A well-coiffed woman in her sixties is playing the solo card game Australians call patience, and Americans call solitaire. She’s wearing the teal trousers and button-down shirt standard for Australian prison inmates, the shirt collar popped defiantly. Her left hand is in a cast, the result of a prison brawl. Her name is Jacs, and she is the reigning gangster queen of Wentworth Prison. She has two specialities: injecting her conversations with sinister subtext and getting her henchwomen to physically, and occasionally psychologically, torture her enemies.

She’s about to engage in the former.

She spots one of those henchwomen, who’s returning to her cell after committing the crime of doing something nice for one of Jacs’ rivals, an inmate who’s grieving the loss of her daughter. The henchwoman gave her some gossip magazines to cheer her up. But she lies, tells Jacs that her magazines were stolen, probably by that rival prison “family”.

Its Sopranos-like approach to the subject distinguishes it from other prison shows

“They’re a devious bunch,” says Jacs. “I should do something about that.” The henchwoman tells her not to bother. “When you go back as far as we do, nothing’s too much trouble,” Jacs says. Then she adds, “On second thoughts, let’s take a walk.” They are, of course, about to visit the rivals, where Jacs will make a show of noticing those gossip magazines. She knows they weren’t stolen, and she’s not about to let it go. Jacs is a woman who has had hot tea poured on fellow inmates and has even had people on the outside killed. There’s no telling what might happen next.

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Such seemingly mundane conversations, loaded with meaning by constantly ratcheting tension and superb acting, are what make Australian prison drama Wentworth stand out. The storyline is fairly standard prison-drama fare: the show follows Bea Smith, a hairdresser in her forties convicted of attempting to murder her abusive husband, as she navigates the prison hierarchy.

But its Sopranos-like approach to the subject matter – simmering tensions punctuated by occasional violent outbursts and shifting relationships – distinguishes it from other prison shows, even the obviously similar American series Orange is the New Black.

Wentworth’s debut episode in 2013 was the most-watched drama premiere in the history of its network, Foxtel. It has since been adapted into Dutch, German and Flemish versions and syndicated in 141 territories. Netflix carries it in the United States, where Orange is the New Black fans have found satisfaction in its grittier, darker and more naturalistic portrayals of women’s prison life. Wentworthis set to return to the air for its seventh season in 2019.

The boundary-pushing female characters wouldn’t come to life without exceptional performances

Its popularity with Australians is tied to its history. Wentworth was conceived as a remake of the soap opera called Prisoner (called Prisoner: Cell Block H in the UK and US), a wildly successful drama that ran from 1979 to 1986. “Prisoner is seen as a landmark in Australian TV, a great leap forward,” says Ben Pobjie, an Australian journalist who has written about Wentworth for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. “Wentworth tapped into this already existing cultural memory that Australia has.”

Luckily, Wentworth lived up to the expectations that Prisoner set – and possibly exceeded them. Both series are now a source of great cultural pride for Australians, according to Pobjie. “We’re a small country and there isn’t a lot of money in our TV industry, so we don’t have the kind of epic, HBO-style dramas that the US is able to make,” he says. “We usually have small, domestic dramas. But Wentworth is different. It’s got a harder edge. It’s more comparable to what we see coming from overseas. Australians are always quite chuffed to be able to surprise the rest of the world.”

When Wentworth premiered, many critics said the same. “[T]his brilliant retelling picks up where the pioneering series left off and then takes the kind of shocking plot detours contemporary TV viewers would expect from award-winning US dramas like Breaking Bad or Sons Of Anarchy,” Holly Byrnes wrote for the Herald Sun.

The boundary-pushing female characters, however, wouldn’t come to life without exceptional performances. Danielle Cormack, the Julia Roberts-like actress who plays Bea, has appeared in a slew of TV and stage roles since rising to instant fame on Wentworth. Nicole da Silva oozes butch sex appeal as the tattooed reality TV star-turned-inmate who challenges Jacs’ authority. Kris McQuade’s first-season portrayal of Jacs as something of a gangster Martha Stewart would scare even Tony Soprano. “The casting… is masterful, especially McQuade, who has the uncanny look of someone who should have been cast in Prisoner,” Byrnes wrote.

Perhaps even more impressive is how Wentworth has exceeded the bar set by Prisoner to become an international phenomenon in its own right – and has even conquered US audiences, who tend to resist shows that are neither American nor British. “Wentworth doesn’t just veer into dark territory every once in a while; it resides there,” Liz Raftery wrote for TV Guide. “Sure, there are flashes of humour, 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.”

In other words, those Orange ladies wouldn’t last a day at Wentworth. And that’s exactly why Wentworthis so gripping to watch – and so ground-breaking.

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