Bad Girls

Some say "no soap" but I say "soap."

Here it is, the most misleading promotional photo ever. The entire cast of "Bad Girls" in cuffs. Left to right we have: psycho-bitch Shell Dockley, her East End toughie lover Denny, Judy and Judy the dotty aunts, Zandra, the only character I've seen in cuffs in two or three dozen episodes, lesbian cop killer and all-round nice girl Nicky, tough-as-nails den mother Viv, and the deeply religious Crystal.

Copyright 2008 by Pat Powers

Fans of wip flicks, most especially sexploitation wip flicks, are not gong to like the upcoming HBO women in prison television series Bad Girls if it is too much like the British series Bad Girls that it's based on. Bondage fans will like it even less.

That's because the British television women in prison series "Bad Girls" is nothing like a women in prison flick, either the sexploitation variety or the Lifetime Channel variety. Bad Girls is a soap opera, only a soap opera and nothing but a soap opera. It may be set within the walls of a women's prison, but for all practical purposes it might as well be "General Hospital."

And for all it's women in prison setting, Bad Girls has almost no bondage imagery and precious little dominance and submission themes.

What? You say it's almost impossible to manage such a thing in a women in prison setting? I understand, I would have thought so, too. I would have thought they would play up the bondage imagery for its pathos and the dominance and submission elements for their emotional power, as Lifetime women in prison flicks often do.

Crystal marries a hunky guard in a secret prison wedding. This is a soap opera, alrighty.

I was so, so wrong. Like most soap operas, Bad Girls invites viewers to vicariously enjoy the miseries and vicissitudes of its characters. The particular genius of Bad Girls in soap opera terms is that the creators realized that women in prison are not all crazed psycho-bitches or emotionally crushed automatons, but are still the people they were on the outside, perhaps deeply flawed, certainly luckless, and they're now in a pressure-cooker environment where they can't escape from one another and are subject to an authoritarian regimen, adding to their misery, as many of these women have poor impulse control to say the least.

In short it's a perfect smorgasbord of human misery and conflict, the very stuff on which soap opera fans feed most enthusiastically. The writers behind Bad Girls have delved enthusiastically into this soup and have thoroughly realized its potential in many respects. But not all, of course.

Lesbian cop killer Nicky. I'd hit it. So would you.

For example, the most fully realized character in Bad Girls is Nicky, a lesbian cop killer whose sentence is 20 years without possibility of parole. She's not an evil person, the cop she killed had violently raped her lover and seemed likely to get away with it. She simply could not abide seeing her lover violently abused without any consequence to her abuser, so she gave him some lethal consequences. Nicky is arguably the best human being at Larkhall Prison for Women, among the inmates AND the staff. She looks and dressed like a smart upper-middle class or office manager or housewife -- the kind of housewife who takes care of her entire neighborhood in one way or another. At Larkhall Nicky spends a lot of her time trying to keep the other inmates from doing stupid things killing themselves (two attempts, one successful, so far). Despite having been treated horribly by fate, she maintains a strong sense of humanity, although she's developed a sort of "kicked cur" response to good news, given that she's been kicked so often and so hard by fate.

Psycho-bitch hottie Shell Dockley. I'd hit it, but only if I had her tied up (so she couldn't attack me) gagged (so she couldn't bite) and hooded (so she wouldn't know who was fucking her). You do NOT want Shell Dockley for a girlfriend. The absolute best relationship with her is total stranger. On another continent. Whom she's never heard of.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Shell (from "Michelle") Dockley, by far the most beautiful inmate at Larkhall, a hot blonde with a killer bod and a nice rack. She's in for the torture-murder of a romantic rival, and like Nicky, she's a lifer. As the torture-murder indicates, she's a really sick piece of work, a psycho bitch if ever there was one. She spends most of her time doing one horrible thing after another. She's bisexual and has absolutely no compunction about using her looks and sex appeal to get what she wants out of others. She has a great "innocent" look but all of the inmates and most of the staff are on to her, as many of her misdeeds have been traced right back to her.

She's also the prison bully. Almost as soon as a newbie arrives, Shell is in her room, letting her know who's who and what's what. It works with some of them -- the one successful suicide was arguably bullied into it by Shell and her lover Denny -- and it doesn't work with others. For example there's Vivian, or "Viv" the hard-as-nails wife of a major drug dealer. Shell comes into Viv's room and starts threatening to cut her tits off, etc., and Viv gives her a hard, cold look and says, "I don't do scared" in a calm, cold voice, and Shell looks in her eyes and realizes she is at best the second toughest prison bitch in the room -- probably more like tenth toughest compared to Viv -- and leaves forthwith.

Shell appears in a bitgag in episode 5.1 which finally made it to our shores on August 21. Read my commentary on the scene here.

Viv (right) gives a newbie con who's pissed her off a good talking to, complete with threats to break her neck. She's so impressed by Viv's talk that she tries to kill herself shortly thereafter. But Viv discovers her attempt and rescues her, then gets all motherly on her. Viv really likes men, in fact, she had gigolos visiting her disguised as lawyers so they could fuck her while they were "in conference." I'd hit it, but only if she really wanted me to. I'd be afraid not to.

Viv is another great example of characterization -- over time, she morphs from just being a hard-as-nails con to being the surrogate mother for many of the younger criminals, preventing them from doing stupid things, just as Nicky does. And believe me, there's an endless well of stupid at Larkhall.

Helen the bleeding heart liberal. She loves Nicky but you have to wonder what would happen in the unlikely event that she should ever discover a more thoroughly fucked-over person than Nicky. I'd hit it, but only under the same circumstances as I would hit Shell Dockley. If she know who I was, she might decide I needed rescuing, and that would be pretty durned tiresome.

Among the guards we have a similar range of characters. On the one side we have Helen, the bleeding heart liberal of the place. She starts out as warden, then is forced to step down when she falls in love with Nicky the cop killer, which pisses Helen's handsome, hunky husband off to no end and leading to a quick divorce. Helen returns to prison in a different role and starts a group to see about getting the lifers out of jail eventually, by challenging their convictions and asking for new trials. (Her real aim is to spring Nicky, her love. I don't say "lover" because Helen is big on abiding by the rules, and the rules are that staff like her can't have sex with inmates like Nicky, no matter how much they love one another. Nicky, on the other hand, is in the unenviable position of having nothing left to lose and would happily settle for some secret prison-cell snogging with the one she loves.) Talk about star-crossed lovers!

Rapist guard Jim Fenner with the current warden (wardens tend to come and go a lot on this series.) He's got a sexual relationship going with the warden, though to be fair he's stopped raping Shell. However, he ALSO has a wife. An oily snake if ever there was one..

In contrast, we have Jim Fenner, a "principal" officer which I think means he has authority over other guards. He's a very successful officer, primarily because he's an oily snake who's very good at covering up his tracks. Fenner is a rapist, his most notable victim being Shell Dockley. They had a "relationship" which involved Fenner having sex with Dockley a lot. Shell was attempting to use the relationship to get her hooks in Fenner, Fenner just wanted the sex. I'm not sure how the relationship started, but I have seen eps where he uses the force and authority of his position -- and none too subtle threats of violence including actual violence -- combined with rewarding prisoners who do as he says to manipulate and control prisoners, and I imagine the relationship with Dockley probably started the same way.

Other staffers have suspected Fenner of rape -- the charges keep coming up repeatedly -- but they never can quite prove it, and the default is to believe the inmates are lying to the staff, because the default among the inmates is to lie to the staff.

Judy and Judy, the dotty aunts. They're sweet and bubbly and beloved by all. It's hard to imagine them ever having done anything to land in prison. Extreme jaywalking, maybe?

There are also innocents and sweethearts tucked away among the snakes, psychopaths, junkies and do-gooders. For example, there are Judy and Judy, a pair of dotty aunt types who have formed a powerful bond while in prison. (it would be great if they had an other brother named Darryl -- though they are not in fact related.) They're bubbly, happy types who are inseparable, though there is no hint that they are lesbians -- and this isn't a show to hide lesbianism (which is probably why it's airing on the Logo Channel here in the US). They're a very sweet pair and it's very hard to imagine either of them doing anything that would land then in jail, but there they are.

(Generally you find out very quickly what crimes new arrivals have committed, but with older inmates (in terms of their appearance on the show) their crimes generally aren't mentioned unless they're germane to the current story arc.)

A nice tape gag scene -- of the most unattractive guard in the prison. She's also a vindictive bitch who is always ready to punish others. She doesn't need a reason, she doesn't need a rationale, all she's looking for is an excuse. She's the one who comes up with Shell Dockley's unofficial punishment for stabbing Jim Fenner.

The reason for these strong characterizations -- almost all the "action" in Bad Girls involves relationships between the inmates and staff, as well as loved one and sometimes unloved ones on the outside. Lurid events of the sort beloved by sexploitation fans do occur, but they are generally packed away among a lot of relationships stuff, and handled so tastefully that they aren't any fun at all when they do happen.

For example, there's a nude shower attack involving Shell Dockley as a victim. Sounds lurid, doesn't it? How could you go wrong? Here's how:

It starts when Shell Dockley finally gets around to stabbing her rapist Jim Fenner (about something other than the rapes, actually). The wound almost kills Fenner, but he recovers after a long stay in the hospital. Meanwhile, Dockley is put in solitary, about the only punishment they have for her. (She's already in jail and they don't have capital punishment in Britain, or she'd have found her neck in a noose a long time ago.) But bleeding heart Helen rightly suspects that Shell has all sorts of good reasons for stabbing Fenner so she works to get Shell out of solitary early. (Shell has lied and committed evil acts so often that she really isn't in a position to accuse anyone of anything, no matter how true those accusations might be.)

The other gag scene I've encountered, this time of a not particularly pretty gaurd. The gagging is onscreen but the action is quick and blurry. After the gag we get a nice long shot of the gagged, tied up guard ... in a dark closet where you can barely make out a thing. When she's rescued it's from the bound guard's POV, so you don't see her bonds even then. It's amazing the way some directors almost instinctively leach the goodness out of a scene.

In fact, when Fenner is finally well enough to return to work, Shell Dockley is right there to greet them with her stabby smile. And Shell has one of the stabbiest smiles ever.

The other guards understandably feel that a couple of weeks in solitary is not much punishment for almost killing one of their own. (Fenner is beloved among much of the staff, part of his general sliminess is that he knows how to work people.) So they rig up their own punishment. There's a psych wing of the prison for mentally ill prisoners, and they withhold meds from a large prisoner who is known to become violent when she doesn't get her meds. Once she's so fucked up that she's basically an enraged bear in prison togs, they slip her into the showers where Shell is showering and turn a blind ear to Shell's screams for help while the psycho prisoner attacks her.

Unfortunately, the director sets up the shot so that Shell's tasty naked body is blocked almost completely by the bulky clothed body of the psycho. By the time we see Shell naked after the attack when the guards who have set her up "rescue" her, she's curled up in a foetal position on the floor of the shower and there's nothing hanging out to see, just her back and the upper part of her butt.

And that's how you fuck up a perfectly good naked shower scene. Practically all of the supposedly lurid events in the show are treated in a similarly tasteful manner. And I say unto you, when tastefulness replaces a hot nude body with a bulky clothed body, that is an indictment of tastefulness itself!

After watching a couple of dozen episodes (somewhere between two dozen and three dozen) I've seen the nude shower assault I've already mentioned, three breakout attempts, one with a hostage, and only one successful, one cuff scene, two gag scenes, one inmate repeatedly threatening others with a razor, one poisoning, one assassination (no inmates directly involved), two suicide attempts, one successful (both brought on by extreme bullying by the inmates) and probably a couple of other things that don't come to mind.

Most of the dominance and submission behavior occurs between inmates. This Audrey Hepburn clone, a member of Parliament's daughter who was turned in for drugs by her own father, is considered posh and haughty by the guards and inmates at first. As a result, they bully her, steal from her, etc., so relentlessly that she fiinally tries to kill herself to escape the persecution.

I've also seen prison births and secret prison weddings and prison funerals, much more common stuff. This is a soap opera.

The two gag scenes sound good, but what you have to realize is that they involve the two ugliest ... er, least attractive ... female guards in the prison and one of the scenes is quick, blurry and dark. They're pretty good scenes, other than that, but that is a big "that."

How can they avoid bondage scenes in a women in prison movie? It's freaking easy. Here's how things go at Larkhall:

Inmates are never restrained while on the grounds at Larkhall, even if they've been rioting or fighting or stabbing guards. They have a cuff attached to their wrists while they are outside the prison the other end of which is attached to a guard. But being prisoners and all, they don't leave the prison very often, as in, almost never. The one cuff scene I saw was when a pregnant inmate was taken off the prison grounds to have an abortion.

In addition to never being cuffed while on premises, they lead a pretty comfy life. They spend a lot of time hanging out with their friends in the rec room/dining hall, and getting up to no good. They also do light work, like kitchen duty, keeping the grounds orderly and the floors mopped, etc., with plenty of opportunity to chat with one another. While the inmates chat and have fun, the guards stand around and watch them and help them out of there's a problem. Except for the occasional psycho bitch rampage and never getting to leave for months or years on end, or in some cases, never getting to leave at all, it's a nice place to live, for a prison. And except for getting locked in at night and the bars keeping them from escaping their dorm wing, there's very little sense that the inmates are in jail at all.

Inmates spend a lot of time relaxing and playing pool in the rec room.

That's how you get 36 hours of women in prison programming with only three bondage scenes and all the dominance/submission stuff occurring between the inmates, to the extent it occurs at all.

There are two things that give me hope for this series: it will be set in an American prison and it will air on HBO. The HBO aspect is particularly intriguing for two reasons: nudity is almost a requirement on premium cable TV series, and HBO is currently in the doldrums with boring "safe" series that have failed to attract viewers like the groundbreaking Sopranos and Deadwood. So there's considerable pressure on HBO's suits to come up with series that are edgy, risky and groundbreaking.

I'd say nudity is a shoe-in for the American version, but I don't know about the other part. HBO may be dumb enough to produce something that is just an Americanized carbon copy of the Brit Bad Girls that I have just reviewed. If so, it's almost a certainty that they will fail because the Brit series is just a soap opera, and not a particularly ground-breaking one at that.

Here's a nice image of imprisoned nudity, courtesy of our advertiser Sex and Submission. I don't know that the American "Bad Girls" will manage any images this powerful, but it is at least within the realm of hope on a premium cable channel.

The American Bad Girls is going to have to be one hell of a lot more lurid than the Brit version if it is to attract more than the fraction of female viewers who enjoy soap operas. You will get very few guys because soap operas bore guys. Believe me, I know. While watching eps of the Brit Bad Girls, I did an awful lot of writing because nothing ever happened to distract me from my writing.

Just having a prison as a location doesn't matter much if you treat it like any soap opera in an institutional setting, which is why the analogy with General Hospital is so apt.

I have slight hopes for the series because it will almost certainly be based in an American prison and American prisons are much more prone to cuff and shackle prisoners, especially high-security prisoners like murderers. And they have bondage toys like restraint chairs for violent inmates.

My hopes along these lines are only slight because Ball's assignment is not to create a realistic show about women in prison in America, it's to create an entertaining show about women in prison in America. And if Ball thinks the cuffs and shackles get in the way of the entertainment, they'll magically disappear from the show, guaranteed.

As I write this story, I've got a picture up in the background of a naked woman bound hand and elbow and knee and upper thigh and foot with a collar around her neck, sucking a guy's cock, and it's as explicit as it can possibly be. It's from the Internet, of course, and it's not just a picture, but a well-made picture, something you might expect to see in a glossy men's magazine, except for the explicitness. How is a TV show ever gonna match that? You've seen the women in prison images from in my reviews. Imagine how powerful such imagery would be if it were allowed to be fully explicit and was also skillfully used for its dramatic effect. Ain't gonna happen, of course, but that's the target I think of when I think about what a women in prison show could be.

Bad Girls, however, may be able to come close. I'll never forget how much more interested I got in the series Deadwood when I chanced to tune in on a scene of one of the main characters more or less giving a soliloquy while a whore knelt between his knees and sucked his cock the whole time. You couldn't see his cock, but what was happening was unmistakable, and powerful imagery besides.

Will HBO have the balls to put on a soap opera with imagery like that occurring fairly often? If they do, they might just succeed like gangbusters. We shall see.

Having one of the well-developed soap opera characters in a situation like this, portrayed as explicity as this, would be incredibly powerful dramatically. Probably won't happen, but once again, hardly outside the realm of possiblity on a premium channel. Image courtesy of our advertiser Sex and Submission. Seems a fitting way to end this review.

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