TV Reviews

Wentworth vs. Prisoner: Series vs. Series

Wentworth debuted in 2013 as a reimagining of the cult status Australian show Prisoner (a.k.a. Prisoner Cell Block H; Caged Women). Wentworth carries over many of the characters of Prisoner but in a whole new world and genre of television. Spoiler alert – this reveals items from both series in their completion. Finish watching before reading so you can weigh in too!

Quick Facts

PrisonerWentworth
Years Active1979 – 19862013 – 2021
Number of Episodes692100
Longest Running CharactersMeg Jackson Morris, Judy Bryant, Lizzie Birdsworth, Joan “The Freak” Ferguson Will Jackson, Vera Bennett, Linda Myles, Susan “Boomer” Jenkins
Musical SpecialYes! See it here.No, but we did joke about it here.

Similarities

Much of Wentworth felt very familiar to viewers of Prisoner. There were many of the same characters (some more like the originals than others), loosely similar story lines and of course Wentworth, the prison itself. Wentworth kept the world or Prisoner alive as well, often mentioning the neighbouring prisons of Barnhurst and Blackmoore.

In both series the stories of the prisoners and the staff are both intertwined and equally important. The staff of Prisoner often are the more familiar characters as there are no prisoners that make the full run of the show (i.e. Boomer). In both incarnations, the main driver of the staff is to make the prison system safer and better for everyone involved.

Differences

The major difference between Prisoner and Wentworth is the format of the show. Both shows ran for approximately the same amount of time; however, Prisoner has seven episodes for every episode of Wentworth. This difference also speaks to the styling of the show: Prisoner is more aligned with a soap opera style, and Wentworth a modern drama. Storylines may be fantastical for both series; however, watching what happens to the staff of Wentworth in approximately 10 episodes per season begs the viewer to question why they keep working there. Wentworth offers a more culturally diverse cast of characters that are a better reflection on the issues of incarceration.

Due to the 30+ year gap between the premiers of the shows, not only the environment of the prison, but what issues are prominent have changed. Prisoner has much more emphasis on the inequities afforded women in the workplace and in the world in general. To contrast, Wentworth has a much deeper focus on police and departmental corruption. Both shows explore both concepts – just in different saturations.

Notable Characters

CharacterPrisonerWentworth
Joan “The Freak” FergusonJoan is not liked by most around her, but she does appear to be human. Joan has many moments of personal tragedy.Joan is not liked by most around her, and is deemed clinically as a psychopath. Joan is a calculated villain of blockbuster proportions.
Bea SmithBea Smith is the Top Dog at Wentworth and is an advocate for the women with the governor.Bea Smith’s journey in Wentworth feels like a mashup of Karen Travers and Bea Smith. This Bea diverges deeply with her relationship with Ally.
Vera “Vinegar Tits” BennettVera is the original Joan Ferguson on Prisoner. She leaves early in the series to become governor of Barnhurst. Vera carries over much of the sad loneliness of her predecessor, but we get to see where life could have gone for her.
Franky DoyleFranky Doyle is violent and illiterate lesbian. She dies trying to save Doreen. Franky is still an angry violent lesbian, but is educated and has promise. I believe that Franky Doyle and Lexi Patterson’s characters may have been combined in this reimagining.
Meg/Will JacksonIn the first episode, Meg survives the death of her social worker husband (Will) who also works at Wentworth.In the first episode, Will survives the death of his prison governor wife (Meg) who also works at Wentworth.
Linda MylesLinda Myles is not a character in Prisoner; however, she fills the space left by Colleen and Joyce who are absent from Wentworth. Linda Myles is a senior officer that is featured as the informant for the women, and is involved in most of the major storylines.
Susan “Boomer”/ Alice “Lurch” JenkinsAlice is a character that moves from being the heavy in the rival crew, to being the beloved part of the main cast.Boomer follows much of the same arch as Alice, but also has more character development as seen through the relationship with her mother and her disability.
Doreen AndersonDoreen is the youngest member of the cast and has a sense of hope even with the unfortunate events of her life.Doreen is still the younger girl on the block, but does not feel as helplessly naive as the original can.
Lizzie BirdsworthLizzie is a comedic edition to most episodes who also offers the realities of aging in prison and the institutionalization of long term prisoners.Liz also stuggles with alcoholism, but is neither as long term of a prisoner, nor as old. Liz is a pivotal character for seven seasons.

The Verdict

The way we watch television in the 21st century is different than it was in 1979. To compare the shows based on format is not necessarily a fair comparison due to the amount of episodes and funding inequalities. That said, they are essentially telling the same story of women incarcerated.

Prisoner does feel dated even for someone who remembers the years and television from the time. The lack of representation for POC and LGBT seems outrageous when compared to how these issues are revealed in Wentworth. There are moments where Prisoner is shocking with regards to political issues. There are what would be considered very forward thinking issues of the time (i.e. Fletch not wanting to settle down with one woman because he was sexually free), that seem out of step with what we would consider reasonable today. Despite the shortcomings of time Prisoner remains an evergreen set of stories of struggle.

Wentworth offers a much more contemporary view into the world of the prison system featuring technology that changes how the game is played. With the addition of surveillance cameras and social media, Wentworth includes a new way of engaging in politics. There is much more action based drama and gore than would have been acceptable for a television audience in the 1980s. The characters of Wentworth are just as endearing as those of Prisoner, and while their storylines may have changed, much of their motivation remains the same. Some characters carry over in name only (Ann Reynolds, Judy Bryant) and do not resemble their former characters in any way. There is some disappointment in misaligned characters for Prisoner fans, the nod to these characters is appreciated.

The world of Wentworth prison as viewed through the lens of Prisoner and Wentworth is a story of human need. When the needs of an individual are not met, they make decisions that can bring them at odds with the law. The staff of Wentworth prison are a mix of those seeking to rehabilitate the prisoners and those who are seeking to punish the prisoners. The dichotomy of punishment vs. reform has plagued the prison system throughout time. Joan Ferguson in Wentworth becomes the embodiment of this struggle. She might be a psychopath, but even she has the capacity to make better choices and reduce her harm on the world.

@kylerichtig

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.