When we navigate the length and breadth of this country on television, we usually don't do it alone. We travel to small towns with Jason Hoyte on Coastwatch, Bill Kerton on Neighbours at War, or Jono Pryor on Road Cops.

Narrators from the central city, our guides on these voyages into the unknown, helping us make sense of the strange characters who grow outside of the hum of our major centres.

Usually they play it for laughs. Which is fine - those guys are very good at what they do, and I laugh with them, and at the regular people who've got themselves into a spot of bother with the law, the water or the guy over the fence. It's not the nicest part of humanity that enjoys watching our fellow citizens casually fall apart.

But for the most part it doesn't feel too obnoxious. Kerton in particular seems to have grown to adore his subjects with their wild urges and maddening preoccupations - and even occasionally provides some healing.


The thing is, these people are perfectly capable of telling their own stories. And they do on This Town, which has a shattering impact on TV One's fascinating peek into the lives of small-town New Zealanders, currently part way through its second season.

The concept is very simple: we arrive in a small town (Invercargill is about the upper limit size-wise; most are much less populous), before spending time with some of the more singular local characters as they explain their passion in life, and why they choose to live in their particular corner of the world.

We meet an aged Southland tractor enthusiast who joins his friends in driving in a painfully slow, paddock-bound version of the formation flying you see at airshows. Only, they do it in drag.

With narration this would be accompanied by a torrent of jokes. Without it the scene acquires a beauty and resonance which stubbornly resists categorisation and explanation.

The following episode saw us arrive in Temuka, where a rigorous man who "starts every morning at 5.30, seven days a week, 365 days a year" cleared the gutters of his immaculate streets, and then invited us into his self-administered model car museum. Kids were $1, adults were $2 - though group concessions were available should those prices prove too arduous.

There are dozens more characters like that, from the frocks on bikes brigade around Nelson, to cowboys in the deep south, one of whose Wild West-style sharp shooting was good for eighth in the world last year. Their stories are accompanied by sparsely deployed acoustic guitar, long amiable silences and beautifully framed shots which capture the steady, handsome dwellings and landscapes against which these lives play out.

On paper this might sound a little too worthy, like some Ministry of Culture and Heritage bureaucrat's fantasy of what should be on our televisions. It could very easily have headed down that well-intentioned but ultimately dull route. But the creators at Jam TV (Intrepid Journeys, South) have gone out of their way to find sparky characters, and clearly devoted generous amounts of time to each segment, enough that each little vignette has its own shape and feel.

Cumulatively they become a portrait of a section of New Zealand life in the early 21st century, with skydivers and shoe fetishists and chocolatiers finding corners of the country with enough room for them to indulge their passions.

It feels like some of the most authentic New Zealand television of the year, stories told with as minimal a mediation as possible. Its qualities stand out that much more starkly by comparison with the more hyped and discussed franchise reality television that TV3 has been pushing for much of the year. That stuff isn't without its leering, half-drunk charm. But it's not all we need on our screens, and This Town's spare, honest storytelling is that much more refreshing thanks to its proximity to so much heavily orchestrated chaos.

It's also ridiculously good value for the public's dollar. The whole season will be delivered for not much more than a single episode of the just-renewed Westside. Each has its merits, no doubt.

But the success of shows like This Town, Keeping Up With the Kaimanawas and TV3's exceptional Reality Trip show that the vein of smart, entertaining and aspirational documentary-style television we've always done well in New Zealand remains a strength.

It feels like an area we could stand to exploit more. We have the talent to create it, and manifestly the stories to tell. This Town suggests that getting out into the provinces without an urban narrator in tow can yield rich and memorable results. Let's do it more often.