Forgotten TV: Dangerous Women

Here’s an oddity not only in the annals of television, but in the annals of the women in prison genre. This was an attempt by the producers of the Australian soap opera Prisoner Of Cell Block H (full disclosure: my favorite TV show ever) to bring their behind the bars drama to the U.S.

This 1991 effort Dangerous Women takes character elements from Prisoner and then goes off in a completely different direction entirely. The appeal of the original is completely missing with this one, but if you don’t appreciate anything about the original, a viewing of one episode of this would go a long way to explaining why Prisoner Of Cell Block H was not a bad show at all, just an imperfect one very of its time.

At the time I decided to write this, I could only track two episodes of Dangerous Women online — the pilot and episode 44 — and these offer a pretty clear view of the general trajectory. Now there are more available, but in this case, more is not necessarily a good thing unless you are particularly drunk and jovial.

Beginning at the officially named “Women’s State Prison” there are characters renamed but clearly based on original Prisoner characters, but this seems to mostly center on a knock-off of the Prisoner character Lynn Warner, a regular in the first 100 episodes who claimed claimed she was innocent of her attempted murder of a child) and an original creation, a mob boss’ wife who sits on the secret of some buried loot and has a scarred face to show for her trouble. She’s just getting paroled and returns to a special inn on a lake to enact her plan of revenge — setting her husband up for her murder and faking her own death, in order to get plastic surgery and a new identity.

By episode 44, she has purchased the inn and it’s become some sort of odd halfway house for all the characters who, in the first episode, are not released, except for the Bea Smith (Prisoner’s long-standing top dog) based character, who has escaped and is now on the run. All the ex-prisoners now living in the inn also have hunky men at their side. There is a brief, curious respite from the inn action showing a New Year’s Eve party at the prison, but that’s about it for ladies behind bars. There is an agent from something called the “Federal Security Department.” An FSD agent! You need to watch out for them.

Strangely, the one character from Prisoner who makes her way onto this show with the same name is Bea Smith’s daughter, Debbie. In Prisoner, she died of a heroin overdose before the show even began and is only ever seen in some flashbacks. Here, she is very much alive and, in episode 44, has taken a wild trip to Vegas with her escapee mom, only to be abandoned by her and left with the mob loot that was such an issue in the first episode. Oh, she also has a hunky new boyfriend.

Where did all this go? Who can say and who really wants to? It’s a typical American soap opera production, peppered with some clunky writing and some amateurish performances, all the things that might have worked for the original, but definitely falls flat here. One major difference is that with this version they try to make it all a bit glamorous, the exact opposite of the original, and one of the original’s great strengths.

Years later, Prisoner would be remade in Australia as the gritty, though somewhat over-the-top, drama Wentworth to much greater effect and success, translating actual characters from the original into a modern setting (including, taking a hint from Dangerous Women, the character of Debbie, who is very much alive when Wentworth begins). That show has found a following on Netflix and is considered an international success, something that eluded poor Dangerous Women, which never really had a chance anyhow.

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