Editor's Note: This piece was co-written by Ellen Kline.
Much of the recent commentary and discussion about positive representation of lesbian and bisexual women on television has been centered around The L Word, and not without some justification. It's the first of its kind for American television, a drama whose main characters are women who love other women, and is popular enough to have just finished its third season on Showtime.
But this discussion has left out one show which is now available in America on DVD, and currently airs on Tuesday nights on BBC America: the innovative, award-winning, and often provocative prison drama, Bad Girls. This show takes place within the walls of a women's prison and features one of the best lesbian story lines ever written for prime time television, on either side of the Atlantic, but it has somehow slipped under the radar in the U.S.
This show has aired on Britain's ITV since 1999, and is currently in production on its 8th season. While much of the programming on BBCA is of a decidedly cult-ish (and therefore limited) nature, Bad Girls is not. At its height, there were approximately 9 million viewers tuning into Bad Girls each week, in a country with a total population of 60 million. A seriously major audience share for a show about women, some of whom love other women. Like The L Word, this show's audience isn't just limited to the gay community–it brings in a fairly large straight viewing audience as well.
So why do I think that Bad Girls gets it right? When you compare the first three seasons of The L Word to Bad Girls, there are three obvious areas in which Bad Girls succeeds where The L Word fails: storytelling and character development, presentation of social and political issues, and positive, non-stereotypical representation.
It's fair to say that both shows have a fairly large ensemble cast, but I've found Bad Girls to be far more enjoyable for its depth of characterization, subtle plot development, and the overall quality of the writing.
This is a show that takes its sweet time when developing complex stories. It takes a full three seasons to develop and eventually resolve the romance between straight (in more ways than one) Wing Governor Helen Stewart (Simone Lahbib) and lesbian cop-killer Nikki Wade (Mandana Jones).
Bad Girls expects its audience to be an active participant in the lives of the prisoners and prison officers, which means instead of Jenny endlessly processing about her Sexuality and her Art, you get fully three-dimensional characters who frequently won't answer questions directly, don't always wear their hearts on their sleeves, and whose writers don't always make it easy for you to understand just what's going on emotionally.
In other words, Bad Girls invites and expects active audience involvement in interpreting the show, not just watching it, and each and every character and plot is at some point fully developed from start to finish – unlike the suddenly dropped characters and dangling story bits which seem to plague The L Word.