Another of the nominees for best comedy web series at the 2013 Independent Television and Film Festival Awards was Prison Dancer (losing out in the end to ‘Preggers’).
The selection on offer for the award was very varied in style: Preggers dealt with the stereotypes around pregnant women; Stockholm covered a serial killer love story between kidnapper and kidnapped; while The Men’s Room assumed that what the people want is barrel scrapping from the blandest barrels in the effluent transporting barrel shop (the fact it won the award for ‘Best Comedy – Television’ is a damning indictment of the ability to throw money at stale insipid poop and make it look like it deserves attention). Prison Dancer is…..well, the best description I can come up with is ‘kinda interactive Glee style Philippine prison mocku-docu-soap-comedy’.
Prison Dancer is fictitious but inspired by (but not affiliated with) the viral sensation, the ‘Dancing Inmates of Cebu’, whose large scale choreographed dance routines have helped shoot their videos up through the ranks of popularity. For Prison Dancer, the warden of a formerly violent prison in Manilla has encouraged the uptake of dancing as a means to unite the prisoners and reduce fighting. We follow the stories of four main miscreants, being Lola, Shakespeare, Hookaps and Christian. And how do we follow them? Through the medium of Glee-style musical numbers and dance routines.
These characters follow some well-worn tropes. Lola is the self-dubbed ‘Head Butch / Bitch In Charge’ who can’t help but feel the music. His minions Oo Oo and Na Na hang on his every word and are always ready to provide some finger-snapping accompaniments to his catty comments. Shakespeare is a general good guy who writes a poem a day for his wife, whilst also being rather defensive and confused about his perhaps ‘too’ friendly relationship with Lola. Hookaps is the bad boy. He is all about survival and making a name for himself, but he gets suckered in to the dancing when offered the chance to choreograph an ode to his hero: fighter, Manny Pacquiao. Christian is the ‘diamond in the rough’ character whose only crime was to fight against the corrupt police force. All he wants is to get out and reunite with his dancer girlfriend, Cherish.
The problem seems to me that Prison Dancer can’t work out what it wants to be. If it is trying to be a comedy then I’m not sure where the humour is supposed to derive from. Most episodes start with an introduction piece by ‘Matt Wells’, credited interchangeably as ‘Viral Star Meme Hunter’ or ‘Pop Journalist’. This would suggest a mockumentary style deadpan humour, but in reality these intros serve only to set up the theme of the episode. Thereafter the format consists of direct-to-camera pieces by the characters which, chronologically by episode, reveal more and more about how the prison dancing became so prevalent. But, of these characters, only two have any funny lines: Lola and Shakespeare. The former due to the bitchiness of his dialogue, and the latter because he’s light-hearted and prone to Freudian slips about his friendship with Lola. Hookaps and Christian, however, are totally straight-faced and there is clearly little intent to give them humorous dialogue or characteristics.
Similarly, the comedy doesn’t come from the big musical numbers that take up the majority of each 4 – 6 minutes episode. These are sung pitch-perfect and also played completely straight (unless you count Lola’s feminine dancing as the sole source of comedy, which I don’t because it can’t be the joke every time). The limited use of staging is well done as each routine is hampered realistically by the prison setting. Sometimes there is a group of incarcerated quick-steppers in the exercise yard (seen through an effective and stylised CCTV quality static shot); sometimes they squeeze down the iron bar cladded corridors; and occasionally a lonely cell itself is enough for a solitary set-up to work. There is no denying that the level of professionalism and attention to detail is impressive; it just isn’t funny.
On the flip side, Prison Dancers clearly isn’t trying to be a serious show either, which can be proved by reversing exactly the same argument as above. Christian’s unjust imprisonment and dramatic songs of love and longing (between him and his trying-to-be-strong-for-the-two-of-us lover, Cherish), play for, and achieve, an engaging level of character driven tragedy; but after some well written and catchy music expressing loss and desire we still end up returning to Lola, with his slinky off-shoulder prison attire; Oo Oo and Na Na dropping supporting one-liners to his dialogue. The dramatic moments are shot without a hint of irony so the subsequent gear shift back into comedy devalues the effectiveness of both elements. The result is that Prison Dancers is unfocused. It doesn’t try to mix its raw genres, instead simply swapping between ‘dramatic’, ‘amusing’, and ‘musical’ as needed, resulting in none of the above really hitting home.
As I said, Prison Dancer is nothing if not well made. It is clear that the crew (Romeo Candido, composer, writer, director; Carmen De Jesus, writer; Ana Serrano, producer) know what they are doing when making a crafted piece of conversation engaging content such as this. The cinematography is superb and I found myself really enjoying more than one of the original songs used. The show additionally sells itself as ‘The Interactive Musical’ and ‘a transmedia experience’. This takes the form of extras accessible at the end of episodes: be they additional monologues from the characters; re-mixes of the songs used; karaoke sessions; or dance tutorials. It adds a nice touch and I found myself enjoying these extra snippets more than the actual show itself because here the writing actually got a chance to breathe, albeit all too briefly. Sadly, these additional scripted parts were few and far between, with most of the extra content being musically grounded. Speaking of which, Prison Dancer also comes available live with ‘Prison Dancer: The Musical’. Impressive!
Prison Dancer has built up immovable steel bars between its separate elements of comedy, drama and musical, as if the concept of dancing Philippine prisoners alone was enough to imbue everything with a starting level of comedy; leaving everything else the freedom to jump in and around the disparate ingredients without ever actually mixing them together. Which is a shame, because the funny parts ARE funny, the serious elements ARE dramatic, and the musicals ARE catchy and entertaining. But without a core guided tone to lead the way, all Prison Dancer can do is continually step on our toes.
Here’s the Prison Dancer trailer for you