Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Duncan Greive: Uniquely NZ teen show needs a wide audience

Brilliant drama should be screened daily on mainstream TV.
Hinerauwhiri Paki plays main character Piki Johnson.
Hinerauwhiri Paki plays main character Piki Johnson.

This is Piki, the brilliant new teen drama on Māori Television, begins and ends with Snapchat-style screens. In the first, the titular protagonist Piki smiles shyly, jokes about her lack of followers and alternates between earnestness, vulnerability and bravado the way teens naturally do.

By the episode's end she's collapsed in her bedroom, feeling an unbearable loneliness, and the Snapchat caption yearns for an absent - presumably dead - mother, who never will fill that void.

Hinerauwhiri Paki plays Piki Johnson and is shockingly good, a newcomer both assured and capable of brilliant subtlety. Johnson has recently moved to Rotorua, where she lives with her boozy nana and attempts to find a way to live and be and grow up. The Kapua family run a local kapa haka group for tourists, and Johnson - playing a role which mirrors her real life job - works alongside the family's children on stage and at the parents' direction.

The latter are the thinnest characters on This is Piki, a stern patriarch and indulgent matriarch. That those cliches are common enough in real life doesn't prevent them from feeling under-developed. But the adults are really bit-players in a show which is all about the teenagers and young people around whom the plot pivots. They speak in an endearing mix of te reo and English - "I could help him find his taiaha," says one with a filthy laugh - which even Paki acknowledged as ringing somewhat false in an interview: "I don't know anybody who talks like that."

The clumsiness of certain characters and the dialogue doesn't hold back what is good and great about the show though: the portrayal of adolescent longing, cunning and sadness.

There's a scene in which Piki walks down a path from school, coyly discussing her feelings for Carl, this big, ruggedly handsome dude on whom she has a serious crush. Hours earlier they'd been merrily sexting away like horned up kids these days are supposedly always doing, but in person that stuff was way too tense to properly broach. It was a beautiful evocation of the halting nature of teenage love and lust, and gave the episode's pay-off the appropriate weight.

What happens is this: Carl's undercut by the connivance of the Kapua kids, who take advantage of the fact his cell's been confiscated by their father to lie about the true nature of Piki's feelings. Carl, scorned and wounded, goes to a well-drawn '90s hip-hop party, gets drunk and pashes one of the Kapua sisters, while Piki, arriving late, watches on.

So it's melodrama, but convincingly displays how small shifts in the wind of affection can cut you to the bone at that age, when there's little else in your life to which you attach meaning.

While its constant weaving of te reo feels more aspirational than grounded in reality, it somehow doesn't feel overbearing, thanks to the natural ease of the young actors.

In This is Piki, we have a distinctly modern drama which could have come from nowhere else. Compared to Filthy Rich, which cost around four times as much on a per minute basis, This is Piki is infinitely more authentic and culturally relevant.

The big question is: why do these shows consistently land on Māori Television? It's to that broadcaster's credit, for sure. But it also suggests that Māori stories, even when told as well as this one, have no relevance within a mainstream network - a ghettoisation of the only thing which is truly unique about this nation.

What This is Piki needs more than anything else is eyes on it. You can imagine the storylines swelling and cresting in a way which resonates with a generation. The integration of social media is as sweetly and naturally handled as on any show I've seen, and the performances are often brilliant.

But it should be on every day at 5.30pm, the way Trinity Point was meant to be - with the writers and performers learning and growing as they go.

Because this show, while built around a Māori experience, is truly built for all to see.

- NZ Herald

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