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Nicole da Silva, left, and Danielle Cormack, centre, star in the prison drama Wentworth, which airs Sunday, 9 p.m. on APTN.
Nicole da Silva, left, and Danielle Cormack, centre, star in the prison drama Wentworth, which airs Sunday, 9 p.m. on APTN.

John Doyle: Prison drama Wentworth delivers superb storytelling Add to ...

You want it dark, tense and fully female-centric? You got it – Wentworth starts airing in Canada this weekend. The top drama in Australia, it’s also a hit in Britain where one review summed it up as, “an explosive mix of sex, drugs and violence.”

It is that and more. It’s a striking example of how to make strongly dramatic, addictive TV using a confined setting. If there’s a new U.S. network drama coming this fall that’s superior, I have yet to see it. Earlier this summer I recommended it, in a brief manner, as a top pick on Netflix. Now it’s on a cable channel here that anyone can access.

Wentworth (Sunday, APTN, 9 p.m.) is, from the get-go, all tense direction, sleek editing and punchy writing. Things open with Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) arriving at Wentworth prison for women. Exactly why she’s been incarcerated isn’t clear at first. She is terrified, worried about her daughter and on the verge of a breakdown.

No time is wasted with complex backstory. Bea gets a slice of prison life while still in the van taking her to the jail. When she’s directed to her cell, she opens the door to find two women having sex in the cot. One is Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva), the prison’s queen, whose main interest is in intimidation and staying the boss. Before Bea can get her bearings, she’s obliged to do favours for Franky. Dangerous favours.

The pace and tension of Wentworth is relentless. As drama, it’s a model of speedy storytelling. And it’s frightening. Franky Doyle is evil and the prison seethes constantly with the throbbing, underlying presence of violence and sex.

The setting is remarkably well done. The feeling of enclosure is dominant. There are CCTV cameras everywhere and they provide the only perspective that isn’t that of the terrified Bea. No one can be trusted. Not the prison guards, who have their feuds and faction fights ongoing; not the long-term prisoners who appear benign and weary. There isn’t a single moment of lightness in the first and second episode – APTN is airing two consecutively on Sunday.

In reputation, Wentworth has been overshadowed by the similarly themed Orange Is the New Black, but they are vastly different dramas that merely share a topic that’s a starting point. Unlike OITNB, Wentworth doesn’t pause for detours and it isn’t interested in whimsy. As a prison drama, it is much closer in tone to HBO’s Oz than anything else. Like Oz, it is focused on presenting the ugliness of life inside a prison. And what it shares with Oz, too, is the fact that the brutality depicted offers ample scope for extraordinary acting performances. Most of the actors on Wentworth were known for theatre, not TV, when cast in the show.

There is a lot violence in Wentworth, be prepared for that. A lot of blood is spilled. Hands and faces are attacked. When a character’s background story is explained, the scenes have a nightmarish quality. And yet, for all the ugliness, the drama is gripping and the storytelling technique is superb. You don’t want to turn away from it.

There is a visceral thrill in the sheer bluntness of Wentworth. The series isn’t about what the prison system does to women; it’s about what violent women do in prison. And that overriding theme is presented to us without apology. Possibly, a greater narrative can be read into the show – the prison represents the larger world itself, in which women are constantly watched, constantly under pressure.

But larger themes and social awareness or issues of gender are not part of the appeal. Wentworth is just as advertised – “an explosive mix of sex, drugs and violence.”

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