Eyebrows will be raised when Shortland Street's Nurse Carol Buxton falls in love with a female doctor, reports FIONA BARBER, but the star is unfazed.
Tandi Wright is no stranger to doctor-meets-nurse storylines. As nurse Caroline Buxton on Shortland Street, she has had more than a couple of on-screen trysts with medics.
Her latest love is also a doctor but in a plot development that initially surprised the actor, the subject of her affections is a woman. Caroline falls in love with Dr Laura Hall.
"It seems out of character but life often is," says Wright of the lesbian storyline which has Caroline ditching her groom-to-be and falling in love with her bridesmaid. "I will be interested in public reaction because a lot of the public find it (the issue of gay relationships) difficult."
Whatever the response, Wright is confident that the plot turn works because it is a true love story.
"It became apparent to Caroline, slowly, that this woman was more important to her than any other relationship in her life,"says Wright. "They've been friends - it's a natural and deep love."
Wright points out that in four years her character has suffered through a series of heterosexual relationship disasters, including a relationship with Dr Gary Travis; unrequited love for Lionel Skeggins; brief flings with clinic boss Dr David Kearney, ambulance officer Rangi Heremaia and high school student Conrad Townsend; and an on-and-off liaison with the recidivist bad-boy Greg Feeney.
She couldn't find the right man, says Wright, so Caroline decided to settle for a good one - Dr Alan Dubrovsky.
"She's got to the stage with Alan that her biological clock is ticking and she wants love, marriage and children in that order," she says.
However, the match with Dr Alan was not meant to be. "Caroline knew she had to dump Al. It becomes clearer to her that the reason was she loved someone else." That someone else was Dr Laura Hall, played by Larissa Matheson.
Although this is not the first gay love story to bubble through the New Zealand soap, Wright says it is one which has been "handled with the depth required."
When she found out about the lesbian-love storyline, she began talking to people about it and discovered how common it was for women to find, in their 20s and 30s, that they loved other women.
Shortland Street has never shied away from issues in its half-hour week-night episodes and has attracted both praise and controversy as a result. "I think the writers are extremely astute in terms of what's happening in the nation," says Wright.
Matheson, who has been on Shortland Street for five months, says she found out about the storyline when she turned up for work for the first time. "I was surprised, particularly my choice of partner."
The issue, she says, has been handled well. It attempts to go for the real love story as opposed to a shock value "snog in the staffroom."
Margaret Henley, film and television studies lecturer at Auckland University, says Shortland Street tries hard but the gay characters seem to be linked to big issues. A storyline this year, she says, had Moira's son coming out but in tandem was the issue of his brother needing a lifesaving transfusion.
She says the programme broaches the issues and then the gay characters seem to leave. "Where is this [the gay love storyline] going to take Caroline?" she asks.
"What I do like about Shortland Street is that they often rein in the characters and they appear to work hard not to make them a stereotype."
And in Caroline and Laura, they had certainly not opted for lesbian stereotypes. "That whole idea of the ideal of romantic love that Caroline embodies has been completely held up for scrutiny for a young demographic and that's quiet courageous."
And in regard to Caroline ditching Alan before they get to the altar: "Under Darwin's law of natural selection, who in their right mind would go for Al?"
A 27-year-old woman who watches Shortland Street agrees that the gay characters don't seem to last long and wishes the programme would show a lasting gay relationship that people grew to accept. "There's no one living as a loving couple happily together," says Danielle, a lesbian.
Wright says the programme-makers were clever in using Caroline because she is a sympathetic character and the public like her. "She's extremely warm-hearted and generous - perhaps a touch over- sentimental, but she's generally good ..."
And she is very glad Shortland Street decided to forge ahead with the idea. "I'm really pleased to be part of a storyline, which will be prompting some debate."
Gay old times on our 'Street'
When Ellen came out in the sitcom of the same name, the shock sent America into an uproar. But scriptwriters on Shortland Street have been introducing gay characters for years:
*1993, Sam Aleni discovers that his ambulance partner, Jamie Forrest, is gay.
*1994, Dr Meredith Fleming has a romance with nurse Annie Flynn.
*1996, Jonathan McKenna gets together with social worker Kane Tairoa.
*1999, Moira's son, Jordan Crombie, and pharmacist Ewen Douglas have a relationship.