It's the biggest broken record in broadcasting. Name the format – sitcom or serious drama – and more people than not think the British do it better than just about anyone else. Look at sketch comedy for one. You can list your Kids in the Hall and SCTVs until the cows go condo, and you'll still get goons gleefully pimping Monty Python (and they'd be right, just to let you know). Mention the situational style of wit, and 9 times out of 9.1, you'll get someone stating Fawlty Towers, The Office or maybe Red Dwarf, as the bastions of beauteous buffoonery (Heaven help the person who mentions Are You Being Served?).
But it's the drama that draws the most decisive words. Comment about cop shows and the UK urinates all over the US. Cracker creams any number of legal eagles, while Prime Suspect gives the gloomy American law enforcement focus a decided red, black and blue eye. Thanks to lax censorship and a far healthier sense of reality, the Brits tend to avoid pathos. In its place they put style, substance and a sharp observational skill.
But if you want to get back at the Beefeater, if you want to ridicule the Royalty worshiping wimps, just mention Bad Girls. No, not the faux femme Western from a few years back. This is a PRISON drama, baby, fresh with all the smells, the stains and the showers one comes to expect from gal gang gratuity in the big house. The Penitentiary as Playhouse 90 has had a jagged, unstable history. Oz was good, and so was Australia's Prisoner (later augmented with Cellblock: H). There are many who think that Girls is the best of the conjugal convicts in heat motif. But it is really nothing more than a lipstick lesbian friendly, frightfully unoriginal offering of boring babes behind bars.
The first season of Bad Girls does the usual set-up stuff. We are introduced to HMP Larkhall, and its divergent cast of characters. On the outside, there is the staff, consisting of Simon Stubberfield (Supervising Governor) Helen Stewart (warden/ Wing Governor), and guards Jim Fenner, Sylvia Hollamby, Lorna Rose and Dominic McCallister. On the inside, amongst the various pushers, addicts and thieves, are Michelle "Shell" Lockley (lifer, for murder), Denny Blood (lesbian street punk) Rachel Hicks (drugs), Zandra Lackett (drugs), the two Julies – Julie Johnston and Julie Saunders (prostitutes), Monica Lindsey (accessory to extortion) and Nikki Wade (lesbian, lifer for manslaughter).
Helen is idealistic and wants to implement changes. She is up against the old guard consisting of Stubberfield, Fenner and Hollamby. Fenner wanted Helen's job, but was denied the promotion. Stubberfield looks after him, as part of that school tie/old boys network in Britain's paternalistic society. While Dominic and Lorna are loyal to the new Governor, Sylvia can't stand her. Anything that causes more work for the officers and more privileges for the prisons just gets her bleating, bloated goat.
Among the inmates, there is a divide between Shell's gang and those devoted to Nikki. Shell runs the drugs, uses muscle instead of manipulation to get what she wants, and has a sexual ally in Officer Fenner. Wade is a wounded sister of Sappho who sees nothing of value in prison besides the garden and the library. She fights for her rights, but only when pushed to the breaking point. But since she keeps her nose clean, and has several allies of her own, she seems to have Shell and her minions' number.
Over the course of the ten episodes included on this DVD, we see the introduction of new characters, the death of a few friendly faces, political moves against the prison behind the governor's back and the standard soap opera elements of love, hate, jealously and betrayal. The specific installments included are as follows:
Episode 1: Them and Us - When a prisoner almost dies from a miscarriage, Governor Stewart uses it as an opportunity to begin her new reform agenda. Naturally, the guards hate it, while the inmates are wary.
Episode 2: Drug Wars - Governor Stewart targets drugs as the #1 problem in Larkhall. Shell uses such a situation to get Nikki in trouble, as well as to torment a new inmate, the small and waiflike Rachel.
Episode 3: Love Rivals - Love problems abound at Larkhall. Shell discovers that Fenner has been diddling Rachel as well. Meanwhile, new inmate Zandra goes into detox so she can marry her boyfriend – in jail.
Episode 4: The Victim - After learning her boyfriend intends to marry another, Zandra demands an abortion. Rachel is tormented by Shell to the point where she eventually breaks. A tragedy shakes up Larkhall.
Episode 5: Tangled Web - The death on an inmate has everyone pointing fingers at Governor Stewart. Fenner and Stubberfield condemn her actions. Meanwhile, Zandra blackmails PO Lorna into being a mule for drugs.
Episode 6: A Big Mistake - A new inmate arrives at Larkhall, much to Denny's dismay. Dominic confesses to Helen about the mishap surrounding Zandra's abortion. Lorna attempts to smuggle valium into the prison.
Episode 7: Playing with Fire - Governor Stewart gets a marriage proposal from her live-in boyfriend, while Lorna is forced to supply more drugs for Shell's gang. When she is caught with contraband in her cell, Shell fingers the officer.
Episode 8: Falling Apart – Matronly Monica finally settles down in Larkhall, only to discover some tragic news about her son, who has Downs Syndrome. In the meantime, the Julies try to make some homebrew wine.
Episode 9: Pay Back Time - Monica is on suicide watch. Shell sets up Lorna, who is eventually caught and discharged from Larkhall. Governor Stewart gets in trouble, once again, over her drug policy.
Episode 10: Love Hurts - Monica is still very distraught, but she gets some good news that helps bring her out of it. Shell and Fenner are fighting, their relationship threatening to become public knowledge. Governor Stewart and her beau have a falling out.
There is a specific moment when Bad Girls goes horribly, horribly wrong, an exact scene including a specific element that makes something that had, frankly, just the smallest amount of actual potential go all gimpy and pear-shaped. Before this boner, which occurs at the end of episode four, we are more or less pulling for this British drama. With the menacing memories of Prisoner: Cell Block H and dozens of chicks in prison flicks populating our preferences, we really hope Bad Girls can pull it together. UK dramas are usually so dense, so complex in their characterization and careful in how they present their plots that the meandering mess we've seen for the previous three hours and 15 minutes seems like a flummoxing fluke.
But the moment this misstep occurs, from the very instant we see it coming, we realize that Bad Girls really is bad. It substitutes an easy sexuality and a use of the word "shit" for any real substance, suspense or storytelling skill. Unlike your typical nighttime drama that attempts to balance the soap opera with the scandalous, this women-in-prison piddle is all random conversations and formulaic facets. The Governor is an attractive, young woman – so naturally, who would the prison's reigning lipstick lesbian fall for? The big beefy bully of a guard? Of course he's nailing the inmates. Though we like to think of ourselves as an enlightened, modern society, Helen Stewart is still treated like trash because she wears a skirt. From its "freshen your drink, guv" groaners to the irrational narrative devices (a prisoner, allowed to escape, is really just going to argue with her boyfriend before voluntarily returning to custody?) this is a show sunk by its own desire to play by the rules and stick to the tried and true. Had it once ventured beyond the basics of televisual tendencies, it may have been fantastic – or at least fascinating.
But there are other problems inherent in Bad Girls' mangled modus, flaws that keep us from digging in and enjoying all the bodice behind bars fun. First off, Bad Girls can't figure out how to have real villains. Oh sure, there are characters in the cast who the writers THINK are evil, but we never really see them do anything exceptional or out of the ordinary. As a PO with more casual time on his hands than a freelance napper, Jim Fenner is a fool's idea of an antagonist. His motives are so petty and puerile, connected directly to his penis (which is, apparently, linked to his desire to stay employed) and filtered through a steak and kidney pie perception of professionalism that when he does something dastardly, it seems stupid, not sinister.
Then there is Michelle "Shell" Dockley, the resident slag of the cellblock. She's a lifer (a rarity in this show, since Britain's penal system is painted in very broad, hyper-liberal strokes) who supposedly burned someone to death. Okay, we can handle that – "hot" tempered and all – but instead of being schooled in the art of slaughter, she's only good at the kind of teasing that went out with grade school, lip gloss and your first French kiss. How does she drive one inmate to suicide? Why, by DRAWING a picture of her, with a "cut here" mark across the cartoon figure's neck. How HORRIBLE! In fact, she does blackmail a few people, and in a fit of rage, she does murder – her pet bird. But when one thinks of real BAD girls, a prissy bottle blond with a rack that attracts more attention than her antisocial attitude does not a nemesis make.
There are other attempts at the baneful and iniquitous, but each one still stumbles in the area of malevolence. Denny Blood looks like a substitute singer for Bow Wow Wow, not some manner of corrupt street rat. Good old whiny Zandra is more horrifying when she's wailing like a wounded marmoset than when she's threatening people. Even poor old cantankerous coot Sylvia Hollamby is just a pissed off pepperpot as ferocious as a fishwife and twice as tolerable. Indeed, Bad Girls gives us so few of those love to hate 'em heavies – Joan "The Freak" Ferguson and Frankie Doyle from Prisoner, Adebisi and Schillinger from Oz – that there is no real moral core to the show. Instead of a battle between good and evil, we are stuck with a whiny bunch of buffoons with nothing better to do than bitch at each other.
Also, Bad Girls gives us no one to really identify with. The closest it comes to delivering a person whose problems we can sympathize with is the matronly, morose Monica. With her handicapped son and 'right place/wrong time' conviction, this middle-aged victim of situational circumstances does suffer nobly in the cause of incarceration. But again, Girls can't manage its storylines. Within two or three episodes of her arrival, Monica is settled in, shattered, suicidal and starting over. Instead of really drawing out the drama, this is a show that wants to compact and compartmentalize. It happens with Rachel the drug waif and again with Zandra the misguided marrying kind. This hurry up and get on with it concept constantly corrupts Bad Girls' potential, making the narrative more nerve-racking that nuanced.
But the biggest stumbling block to enjoying this show is its slow-poked scripting. Though, from the above complaints, you'd think this series sails by at lightning speed, you'll be hard pressed to find an iota of plotline drive here. With so many stories to juggle, so many personalities to play with and real life issues to address (since this is prison, there has to be some bows to authenticity) Bad Girls should be wall-to-wall intrigue. Yet it just drags on endlessly, building up very little dramatic intensity. Lorna's lamentable decision to smuggle drugs comes as no surprise - this is a show of such stupefying judgment calls, after all – but how her dismissal plays out, the convoluted conventions the storyline jumps through to get her gone, are genuinely uninteresting and awkward.
Indeed, so is most of this series. When an Australian soap from the 70s/80s is more authentic, daring, focused and fun than something which has the luxury of being both timely and potentially envelope pushing (this was made in 1999, after all – and British television standards are far more lax than those of the US), you know you're in for a long, limp haul. Certainly, this will appeal to those TV fiends who really aren't picky, the ones who will watch just about anything, and champion it even when there is far better fare playing elsewhere. When you think about English dramas, the classics immediately come to mind – Cracker, Prime Suspect, Wire in the Blood. Sadly, Bad Girls will not be joining their ranks any time soon. There is some minimal entertainment value here, but nothing worth wading through the 9 hours plus of paltriness passing as plot.
Oh...and that fabled misstep that began this whole harangue? When a prisoner dies and the women express a few harmless moments of goofy gallows humor, our resident Christian, Crystal, steps up to the window bars of her cell and belts out – get this – "AMAZING GRACE"!!! That's right, a horrid, a cappela version of that already overdone dirge, complete with soulless slinks up and down the scales for added irritation. While there may be those who enthrall at Crystal's song selection, just remember this – she will pick that cornball campfire crud "Kumbaya" for another dramatic diversion. Ugh! Nothing will send your TV series into a shame spiral faster than calling up an old spiritual to suggest emotional resonance. Unfortunately, this is what Bad Girls thinks makes for heart aching ambience.
Capital Entertainment does a nice job with this DVD package, from the inventive plastic cover, to the gatefold cardboard case holding the three discs. The episodes are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and for the most part, look very good. There is some minimal compression issues (pixelating, jittery replay) that occurred on all three DVD players tested, and much of the shows palette runs along earth tones (with the occasional bursts of uninspired color). As with most modern media the digital transfer is, overall, very good. A few minor quibbles here and there, but nothing to destroy your enjoyment of the series.
Sadly, the Dolby Digital Stereo is a little heavy on the music side. During certain scenes, as well as times when the atmosphere in the prison is loud and rowdy, important conversations and dialogue simply disappear. Also, the recording of the scenes in the cellblocks can be filled with echo and reverb, reeking havoc on your ability to decipher sounds and enjoy your home theater system. The aural presentation of Bad Girls is not the worst ever encountered, but it won't be winning an award for excellence anytime soon.
Capital Entertainment usually does a good job supplementing their releases. Too bad then that Bad Girls is hampered with the same three sniggling bonus features on each disc of this set. There is a TEXT interview with several of the cast members, a minor gallery of images from the show, and a dictionary of Larkhall 'slang' (in case you wanted to know how to say "pedophile" in prison-ese...it's NONCE by the way). What the company should have included is CONTEXT – especially the impact of the show in the UK (where it is intensely popular) as well as some information on its creation and development. In fact, it's difficult to imagine that even the fiercest fan will be happy with this smattering of special added features presented on these DVDs.
By their very nature, a continuing drama with a serialized storyline has to grab you from the start, or you'll bale faster than an actress on a chance at co-starring in Mission Impossible 3. And there will be those of you out there with far more patience (or far less taste, you be the judge) who get this goulash immediately and savors every girl/girl gram of its supposed greatness. But others will find Bad Girls an endurance test, tenacity consistently undermined as plotlines peter out and potential goes completely unfulfilled. Since it's so up in the air as to whether or not you'll cotton to this correctional crap, a lend lease look is in order. And honestly, unless you're instantly glued to the screen, this series is nothing more than a rental. Pick up a disc or two and give it a whirl. If you like it, indulge in more. But if you don't, you now know why. You also will have some tempting fodder for the next time someone presents you with a UK vs. USA TV debate. One dose of this dreary anti-drama and you'll have them bent over, begging for mercy.
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