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

Duncan Greive: Why Shortland Street's return proves it needs a shake-up

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Shortland Street's plots, sets, and character archetypes are rotating with a little too much regularity, says Duncan Greive.
TK Samuels is at the centre of Shortland Street's latest murder plot.
TK Samuels is at the centre of Shortland Street's latest murder plot.

"My name is Te Koha Samuels. I'd like to report a crime. Murder. I killed a man."

Shortland Street is back from its summer break and the drama is real. What's more, it's enveloping TK Samuels, the shredded babe whose comically brooding earnestness makes him probably the most consistently funny man on New Zealand television.

Every single line is delivered with the same dry as a ditch expression, and it feels like the writers now get a kick out of playing up to this pomposity: "I've perjured myself once," he says earlier, before immediately defining perjury. "Lied under oath."

This is the central plotline of a distinctly chaotic return episode: TK's murdered a bad guy named Hayden, only who is the real bad guy?

Because TK thinks he is, and is desperately trying to go directly to jail. But there's a cop in a suit who seems like he might be quite bad too.

"There were some dodgy cops working for the big boss," says Lucy to a man who is definitely a dodgy cop working for the big boss.

But maybe Nicole's the bad guy? She's cheated on her lovely partner Vinnie with a nurse named Ruby. Or, as her ever-magical mother Leanne puts it: "You've made your bed - and you lay in it with a lesbian."

There's another plot involving a chap with a head injury who may or may not wake up, but such is the nature of the Christmas cliffhanger that this particular thread has absolutely lost its lustre.

Discounting that one year when they had a male strip show, every other year has featured someone with a head injury who may or may not wake up.

This is the central challenge facing Shortland Street as it heads toward its 25th anniversary later this year: how to maintain a sense of creative motion within the tight confines of a daily soap which now has more than 6000 episodes behind it.

As a former devotee (I went more than seven years in the '00s without missing a single episode) who has since strayed from the flock, returning to Ferndale on Monday was a somewhat disappointing experience.

Soaps always rely on relationships with the key characters and sports-style of rooting for the good guys over the psychotically evil, thus making them near-uniquely hard to dip in and out of.

But even so, it felt like it was a little run-down.

The loss of so many long-running and well-acted characters, particularly the Cooper family, Sarah Potts and Rachel McKenna - and their replacement with a bunch who are fairly similar in age, fit-as-hell body type and demeanour - means that it can be a bit of a blur. The plots, the sets, even the character archetypes rotating with a little too much regularity.

It made me wonder if what the show needs is a major reboot. To merge with another hospital, thus culling a bunch of old and adding a bunch of new cast.

Maybe they engineer the re-emergence of a lot of old cast - maybe the whole Jeffries clan, or Lionel and Kirsty and Nick. Or a return to the show's foundational roots with a politicised examination of the state of healthcare funding and structure (probably not that; even as I type it I'm falling asleep).

Something though! The hospital, the flats, the bars and cafes - it all feels a little rote and washed out.

And Shortland Street is too good to be allowed to slide into irrelevance - by far the most significant drama in our television history, it has consistently challenged social norms and provided a level of public good that many funded shows would never approach.

If it's to push on to a half century and retain its primacy in our dramatic storytelling landscape, it needs something major to roll into Ferndale and shake the town to its foundations.

The 25th anniversary, then, represents both a challenge and an opportunity. Here's hoping they make something of it.

- NZ Herald

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

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