Viewer's Discretion: Women-in-prison shows worth streaming

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'Locked Up' (Amazon)

The best women-in-prison show of recent times is hiding from everyone, but I'm here to reveal that the Spanish series "Locked Up" deserves that designation. Following white collar crime patsy Macarena (Maggie Civantos) as she is thrown into the out of control, dangerous nightmare of prison, "Locked Up" tracks her development through her experience navigating the treacherous terrain and taking lessons from each failure.

"Locked Up" is also superior at taking the stock characters and making them whole creatures, the most captivating being Zulema (Najwa Nimri) the Egyptian murderess and series villain, who offers a slithering allure and some level of sympathy for her even as she does awful things. It's filled with engaging performances, most notably Alba Flores as Saray, a violent lesbian who finds cultural and family pressures pushing her into an arranged marriage, and Mar a Isabel D az as Soledad, the older prisoner who murdered her husband and now waits for a heart transplant.

There are also added dimensions thanks to interspersed interviews in documentary-style segments that address not only the characters' pasts but bring out other sides of their personalities that you might not encounter within the women-in-prison story structure.

The show also manages to build excitement beyond the prison setting while linking the stories together in a compelling way. Macarena's incarceration leads her family into a free-for-all caper in a struggle against Zulema's associates. It provides a wild ride that's just as compelling as what goes on inside the prison and probably more insane for the twists and turns.

"Locked Up" is a hidden gem. It doesn't get much press, it barely gets mentioned anywhere, but it's a highlight among several Latin American shows that are popping up on streaming that deserve attention.

'Wentworth' (Netflix)

With the fifth season return of "Wentworth," the show has dramatically shifted to all the supporting characters, now that the arc of the main character Bea Smith has ended. That's a great thing, because it not only spreads out the action but gives some less commercially-viable characters (that is, older women) a spotlight that is typically one of the strengths of the women-in-prison genre — when not preoccupied with hotties, non-conventional female leads get the attention they deserve.

That was the case with the 1980s cult Australian soap opera that "Wentworth" remakes. "Prisoner of Cell Block H" was nirvana for this kind of casting, and that's one of the aspects that makes it worth bringing into the 21st Century.

These kinds of actresses dominate the new season, like the female Sith lord Pamela Rabe as evil former-governor-turned-prisoner Joan Ferguson; Celia Ireland as the desperate Lizzie Birdsworth; "Prisoner of Cell Block H" alumnus Sigrid Thornton as the pathologically murderous beauty products magnate Sonia Stevens; and Katrina Milosevic as the simple-minded and affection-starved prison muscle Boomer.

Always hovering somewhere between engaging drama and over-the-top soap opera, "Wentworth" continues to do what it does best, but it does it better with this season and tops it off with a delicious finale.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me


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