Why Wentworth should be the template for how to get a “reboot” right

Ben Pobjie on why the “reboot” has become so incredibly ubiquitous in the last few years and why Wentworth is the only show, in his opinion, to nail it.

This content was created in partnership with Foxtel.

In the strange and impossibly long year of 2021 there are few things the streaming public seem to love more than a reboot. 

Sometimes this works beautifully, bringing a whole new sensibility to an old premise, taking advantage of the strengths of the original concept while also capitalising on the opportunities for a fresh approach that the modern landscape affords. And sometimes it falls absolutely flat, producing lifeless generic pap that forsakes any attempt at imagination or innovation in favour of simply churning out by-the-numbers drama that crosses its fingers hoping name recognition will be enough to get by on. Into the latter category can be placed such uninspired “reimaginings” as Hawaii 5-0, Lethal Weapon and Teen Wolf. Into the former: such triumphs as Westworld, Battlestar Galactica, and perhaps more than any other, Australia’s long-running prison saga Wentworth, which in rebooting the world of the groundbreaking drama Prisoner, provides perhaps the perfect template for how to do a reboot right.

First, it’s important to specify exactly what we mean by a reboot. We don’t mean a revival, a la the latter-day resurrections of shows like Will and Grace or Roseanne – those are just the old shows brought back to life, with the same cast and the same scenario. Neither is a reboot, in TV terms, quite the same thing as a “Remake”. Remaking a single movie simply means taking a single story and retelling it in a somehow different way. A reboot, which is something that can only truly be done for a series, whether a TV show or a film franchise, is an attempt to recreate an entire fictional universe in such a way as to draw from its predecessor while infusing it with new life to make it its own distinct entity.

Wentworth is not Prisoner. This is clear as soon as you look at the two shows. Prisoner has the classic look of early-80s Australian prestige soap: the budgets are clearly far from sky-high, the sets never give the impression of anything but the studio, and the walls occasionally wobble. Wentworth, on the other hand, is gorgeous, slick and realistic in every shot. The staginess of the earlier show versus the location verité of the latter is carried through in the performances: Prisoner was a shot of gritty realism in the arm of Aussie TV at the time, but these days nobody could ever mistake the way the characters talk and act for reality. Wentworth, on the other hand, while a heightened version of reality, features the more naturalistic style of scripting and acting that dominates 21st-century drama. 

But you can take greater realism and higher production values as read, when comparing a reboot to an original. What matters most is the purpose for which the new show has been brought to the screen. Has a show been rebooted because the possibilities of the old show’s world for a new bout of storytelling have been recognised, or because somewhere a producer has bet his wad on nostalgia and spun the wheel?

In this respect, Wentworth’s success is spectacular. For Wentworth does not seek to recreate the world of Prisoner, but to use it as a jumping off point for the generation of a whole new legend. Many of the characters of the new show bear the same names as those in the old, and may share some superficial biographical characteristics. But from the very first episode of Wentworth, it set out its stall: it had come to fit completely fresh characters into the basic shapes left behind by Prisoner. Prisoner’s cackling old drunk Lizzy Birdsworth became the caring mother hen of the Wentworth community – with a whole new spin on her alcohol problem. The hardened top dog Bea Smith from Prisoner became the scared and confused Bea Smith of Wentworth: introduced to us at the very start of her journey to “Queen Bea” rather than at the end of it. Dull-witted, rage-filled Franky Doyle became quick-witted, quick-tempered Franky Doyle. Childlike Doreen Anderson became sometimes-naïve but passionate and justice-minded Doreen Anderson. And perhaps most fascinatingly of all, cold-hearted, cruel officer Vera “Vinegar Tits” Bennett became shy, idealistic Vera “Vinegar Tits” Bennett, socially awkward, eager to do the right thing, but in prime position to be battered by experience into a harder, more ruthless form.

Wentworth presented us with a whole new prison, brand-new inmates, fresh staff, but dressed up in a costume that haunted with its familiarity. The names of the characters, the little side-allusions to the original series, the echoes of famous story arcs from Prisoner to be found in the plots of Wentworth: they provided a connection to the old show that made the exercise feel almost like mythology. The way that folklore builds on what has come before, shaping the old stories into new forms for each new generation, until there is a history of tales and legends stretching back centuries with common points of reference but divergences and deviations that give each version its own flavour: that is what, in a far more compressed form, Wentworth has done in taking Prisoner as its source. The mythology of Wentworth Detention Centre now has layers, as the old stories have been transformed into the new. A new universe has been built from the raw materials of the old, so that it harks back but never relies on its forerunner for its appeal.

Today Wentworth stands alone as a brilliant and individual piece of art, while also maintaining the thread to a very different ancestor that makes both shows feel like they are now part of something bigger than themselves. 

No reboot could possibly aspire to more.

This content was created in partnership with Foxtel.

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