The deepest, most searching question of modern New Zealand life was heard at the end of Wednesday night's special 30th anniversary episode of Shortland Street, when Tina Cross belted out the show's theme song, and gave voice to its famous opening lyric. "Is it you," she asked, "or is it me?"
We may never know. The question gets at the existential dilemma we all face as lost souls wandering these islands in the South Pacific – and Shortland Street, too, is first and foremost a show about lost souls wandering the studios of South Pacific Pictures.
To watch the anniversary special was to witness Shortland Street's lasting contribution to New Zealand drama, the way that it presents ordinary actors playing ordinary Kiwis who are forever one step away from disaster and two steps away from the elevator at reception.
We live in a small country. Shortland Street takes place in a small set. Everyone knows each other and we all have to tolerate random extras with walk-on parts. Wednesday night's show opened with a piece of bravura film-making, a long tracking shot that introduced a patient with a bleeding hand, a drunk, a harried receptionist, and, in the centre of it all, just as he has been at the centre of Shortland Street these past 30 years, the tragic figure of Dr Chris Warner.
He has seen it all. He has suffered. He is the shell-shocked uncle of the nation, its wisest and most institutionalised man. The show ended with Dr Warner delivering an incredible monologue. It lasted one minute, 24 seconds, and it was an emotional and rousing state of the nation address – Ardern and Luxon would do well to watch it, and take notes.
Shortland Street has always felt topical. It's held up a soapy mirror to current events. It's been ahead of other media in recognising the need for a diversity charter in its casting (people of colour, LGBT+ people). There was talk on Wednesday night's show about "an inappropriate relationship". And as a medical drama, it's on intimate terms with that constant, lethal current event known as Covid-19.
"These past few years have been some of the hardest we've ever faced," Dr Warner began his 146-word soliloquy.
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"Not just as a hospital – as a nation, as a world. The feeling that the earth is going to crack open, shatter, burst into a thousand pieces. It's got dark and hopeless. Like there's no light – but there always is! We've got to hold on, and look for the small moments of connection, of love, of humour, and embrace them, hold onto them, treasure them, because that's the wonder of it all, isn't it?"
What? Is it you, or is it me, or is it just Dr Warner, New Zealand's most boring man? His speech for the ages took ages, but it served well as a montage – instead of playing a song over a bunch of wordless scenes, Shortland Street played his speech over a bunch of wordless scenes. Characters crying. Characters laughing. Characters waiting for the next disaster to happen, and for the elevator doors to open at reception.
It's a sweet show. It's the New Zealand way of life. One character was "stuck outside Hamilton", which may be better than being stuck inside Hamilton. Another character mentioned "a last-minute drive to Wellington", possibly to get away from Dr Warner's pompous speech. Characters blundered hither and yon, the walls of the little set closed in, it all felt at once hectic and reassuring. Shortland Street will always be with us.
So, too, will Dr Warner.
"The world might crumble," he continued to declare, a whispery Churchill blathering on in a medical centre, "but we'll live, we'll thrive, because we have to!"
Get that man a drink. And a lie-down. He needs his strength for the next 30 years.