“Hard-hitting, original and controversial" is how the official press release describes Bad Girls, the prime-time drama which first aired in the UK over six years ago and has finally been released on DVD in the U.S. this week. The show boasts of its controversial subject matter in the release:
Bad Girls depicts the personal trials and triumphs of prison inmates and officers alike. This is a drama where fear and brutality meet friendship and compassion, and where corrupt staff, treacherous inmates, drugs and violence all combine to test the mettle of those thrown together 24/7.”
But does the show live up to its hype?
Bad Girls is a prison drama not for the faint-hearted, but it has drawn a healthy audience at 8.5 million viewers during its peak. Given its subject matter, the show has the potential to be fraught with cliché and stereotypical representations of lesbians in prison, but the show has managed to portray some very real, and very interesting characters. It's also dealt with often over-looked issues like sexuality within a prison setting, relationships between prison officers/inmates, drugs, suicide, rape and–lets not forget what the show does best–the corruption of prison officers, and abuse of power.
The first episode of season one plunges its viewers straight into life at fictional Larkhall prison, allowing its characters–inmates and prison officers–to develop at a natural and realistic pace. It’s not surprising to learn that Bad Girls has a very strong list of female characters who take center stage, forcing the male characters of the show to remain in the sidelines.
Jim Fenner (Jack Ellis) is the exception to this rule. An opportunistic “screw” (Prison officer) who seemly has nine lives as well as no conscience, Fenner is always involved in something he shouldn’t be, which makes for shocking but often funny viewing. From Shell Dockley, Larkhalls's resident psychotic lifer, to “the two Julies,” whose adventures and plots are both hilarious and touching to watch, this is a show of real contrasting and complex characters.
You don’t need to look further than episode 2 (the aptly named "Drug Wars"), where inmate Nikki Wade is forced to squat over a mirror, completely naked, with the door wide open, by the dedicated search team, to realize that this show isn’t afraid of portraying the harsh reality of prison life. "It must drive you mad not being able to touch me," Nikki tells the prison guard.
Fortunately the show isn’t without its humour. Bad Girls would be nothing without its sharp one-liners and sarcastic remarks from inmates and officers alike. Sylvia Hollamby (Helen Fraser) is the cynic in the officer’s mess, the epitome of the “never listened, never learned” officer who doesn’t like change and would be happy if all inmates were locked up 24/7. Her character is tough and resolved, completely old school, but completely enjoyable to watch. "There’s about as much chance of Zandra Plackett coming off the nasty as there is of Cliff Richard inviting me up to his hotel room for cream cakes and sex," Hollamby says in one episode.
Bad Girls is not primarily a lesbian show, but the show is not without its lesbian, bisexual or just plain confused characters. To date, Bad Girls has portrayed six major lesbian relationships throughout seasons 1-6, and, rather disappointingly, only one major relationship of a bisexual nature. It seems clear that Bad Girls, like many other dramas, has made some steps towards greater visibility for lesbians on prime-time television, but like the others, seems to forget about bisexual women.
Still, the utter matter-of-factness of the lesbian content is refreshing but not surprising given that Bad Girls is conceived, written, and produced entirely by a gay/lesbian team (Shed Productions' Maureen Chadwick, Ann McManus, Eileen Gallagher, and Brian Park).