Trumping Shortland Street's 2007 Christmas cliffhanger - with just-unmasked serial killer Joey Henderson about to strangle an unsuspecting Tania - was always going to be a tough ask. But with not one, not two but three lives hanging in the balance, last year's season finale was a cracker. Here's a recap of the major storylines - plus a few character insights and new-year hints from the show's story editor Paul Hagan - so you'll be more than up-to-date when the new season resumes tomorrow.
Who shot Ethan?
That was the question on everyone's lips when last year's cliffhanger credits rolled. All we saw was the tip of the smoking gun as the would-be killer pumped three bullets into the smooth, suave and very hateable Dr Pierce (Owen Black). At least 10 characters had the motive and opportunity to shoot the villain.
So who did it? Our only real clue was Ethan half-smiling at the shooter before collapsing almost in slow motion to the tune of one of his adored arias. Could it be the assassin hired by ex-business partner and bar-owner Kieran, who'd discovered Ethan hadn't just been plundering dead bodies to sell their bones but had also infected patients with diseased body parts? Was it the victim's girlfriend, Alice, furious to discover he'd secretly filmed her for an online porn business? Could it be Ethan's ex, Brooke, whose self-esteem Ethan had just butchered by faux-declaring his feelings - then driving off without her?
Also in the line-up are Maia, whom Ethan had fired, not to mention infecting her mother with a cancerous bone graft; hospital veteran Chris Warner, who'd just discovered Ethan had murdered an old lady; cancer-ridden Yvonne or her on-off boyfriend Fraser. There's also Stirling Haldane, Ethan's funeral-director partner-in-crime who isn't actually dead and may have come back to exact revenge. Fish-faced Dr Durville perhaps, who Ethan had just assaulted in surgery? How about Callum, whom Ethan had besmirched and just punched out in reception? Was it Tracey, taking revenge for murdered old lady Betsy?
Or perhaps one of the orderlies? In fact, could it be serial killer Joey Henderson back from the dead? Jokes aside, you could feel a speck of sympathy for shy, awkward Joey even though serial murders look worse than Ethan's crimes on paper. But Ethan's so cold-bloodedly sure he's going to get away with everything that there's no twinge of empathy for him. "We're counting on viewers feeling the urge to see Ethan punished," says Hagan. Although the character could be too irredeemable to keep, it's hard to imagine Dr Pierce going down without a fight.
Tania and Kingi
It doesn't look too flash for the on-again, off-again lovers as high-on-P Whitetails' head honcho Kane, bent on revenge for being dobbed in to the cops, bundles them into the back of a jeep. With her life left hanging in the balance two years in a row, is it finally the end of feisty Tania Jeffries? With Tania voted the Street's hottest character on www.throng.co.nz's (non-official) Shortland Street fan awards for the third year running, my bet's no. But should she survive the Whitetails, her dire track record with boyfriends may give her food for thought.
Not even the toughest nut - and Alice (Toni Potter) is tough as they come - could come out unscathed after the year she's had. Kidnapped, operated on and nearly murdered by a woman-hating serial killer, she was hounded by the media, got engaged then broke up, dealt with her ex's murder and her baby's death, and dabbled in alcoholism. Then she hooked up with a cheat who cast her as the serial-killer-survivor on his secret online porn site, gave her surrogate mum cancer and tried to ruin her best friend. Unfortunately, Alice's troubles and trauma aren't over yet, says Hagan. "While she thought Ethan was helping her get the old Alice back, she's going to realise he's really undermined her moral compass." Will she unravel or pick herself up again in the new year? Odds are a bit of both.
Kieran and Libby
Hold on: Kieran's trying to clamber back onto the straight-and-narrow, but then hires a hitman - how does that work? Whether or not he thinks making a bad person disappear is an end which justifies the means, Kieran's been tempting fate for a while: getting in ever-deeper with the Whitetails and not exposing Ethan, for a start. Now he's teetering on the verge of winning or losing everything (his freedom, residency, business, house, fiancee, future). "Whether paying for a murder is enough for Kieran to have a real crisis about his conscience remains to be seen," says Hagan. And gosh Libby's gullible - repeatedly believing Kieran's tall tales. Part wishful thinking, and part not wanting to let the house, fiance and perfect wedding dress slip from her grasp, methinks. Now she's found out he's the kind of a guy who'll spend his house-settlement money on an assassin. Will their relationship stall or see them walk down the aisle this year?
At first we weren't sure whether to love or hate her, but then Brooke's manipulation of Chris' son Harry had us leaning towards the latter. When she kept throwing herself at Ethan while he was with Alice, it was hard not to write her off as pathetic - but you couldn't help feeling sorry for her when Ethan told her she was "the one" then sped off without her. This year, expect the perfectly madeup vixen to reveal more of her riches-to-rags past and perhaps her true colours. Says Hagan: "There's a lot more still to find about Brooke."
Although he knows she's a messed-up minx, Chris hasn't written off Brooke yet. Is he just trying to protect his damaged ex, or does he still have a thing for her? After being married four times, you'd think he'd press pause on the blonde bombshells for a bit, or at least not ask them to move in so soon. But, as Hagan hints, he might not get that luxury.
Sarah and TK
Her own worst enemy yet as altruistic as they come, feisty doctor Sarah last year covered up her increasingly debilitating multiple sclerosis, got "a teeny bit knocked up" and then quit her job. Lucky rock-solid TK's around. Their strong, enduring relationship is a rarity on the fast-paced soap, where couples usually break up within months to add dramatic value. Well, there will be a change in direction for the couple this year, who will have to confront what they really want from their marriage, family and careers. Bring it on.
Yvonne and Fraser
Falling in love with a married man - even if his wife's so Alzheimers-afflicted that she's his wife in name only - isn't easy, especially when you're a woman with morals as strong as Yvonne's and you've just been diagnosed with cancer. Feeling God was punishing her for taking another woman's husband, she broke up with Fraser, then relented. Will she keep Fraser at arm's length in the coming months, or lean on his love?
Haunted by nightmares of her near-death experience at the hands of Joey Henderson, cop-turned-nurse Tracey has now stabbed her ex-prisoner stalker. Odds are he's even more ticked off now. "Tracey has still has a lot of inner conflict over her failed police career, and whether she should really be in nursing or not," says Hagan. Is it curtains for Tracey or will she deal with her demons and keep her court-jester boyfriend?
Morgan, Hunter and Gerald
In what was a big year for love triangles, even by Shortland Street standards (10 if I'm counting right), blonde beauty Morgan, spunky Hunter and ever-endearing Gerald were the standout trio. Will Hunter and Morgan's relationship survive her decision to become a surrogate mother, or will Gerald think again about his asexuality? Meanwhile, how will idealistic Morgan deal with the ethics of impersonating a patient to help her friends have a baby? "What's going to be interesting is what happens when strain is put on her friendship with [prospective parents] Cindy and Trent." says Hagan. Oh, and don't expect the Morgan-drowning-in-debt storyline to be a one-off - the economic turmoil hitting Downunder will be reflected in the storylines.
What with having an affair, nabbing the mantle of CEO, being told his wife Justine was dead but discovering she wasn't, having to fake his grief and continue his life without her, then learning his head of surgery had blackened both their reputations, Callum's had quite a year. This year, he's going to find it tricky to keep kids Hunter and Sophie in line. And while Justine has to stay in hiding until the police case against corrupt pharmaceutical company Scott-Spear goes to court, don't rule out her return as that mess of loose ends is tied up.
Who's next for the chop?
Yes there's a lot of car crashes, deadly-virus outbreaks and murders on Shortland Street, but how else are they going to get rid of characters who've reached a dead end or actors who want to leave? Of course, killing the much-missed Craig would have been unforgivable except that the actor who plays him, Renato Bartolomei, "was dying to leave" jokes Hagan. Don't be surprised if another much-loved character meets their maker this year.
* Shortland Street resumes tomorrow on TV2 at 7pm.