Tim Foley is outside the Shortland Street studios, smoking. It's all been a bit of a shock to the system. Every weeknight his other persona, Dr Mark Weston, beams into our living rooms, dishing out medical advice.

"It's the stresses of the fact that I'm getting married in 11 more sleeps," Foley says, sheepishly stubbing out his vice. Earlier this year his fiance moved to Auckland from Wellington to be with him. But you can't help but wonder if it had anything to do with watching his dastardly deeds on TV this year.

Fans of his on-screen live-in partner, Tania, have watched in horror as her supposedly committed boyfriend sneakily trawled the net for other sex partners.

Foley admits his first thought on reading the script was, "How am I going to explain this to Fiona?"

Tomorrow, in the Shortland Street year's finale, we'll find out just how long he can carry on his dalliances. This finale is a different beast from the annual wrap-up episodes the soap has done in the past.

Rather than gruesome accidents or wedded bliss, it's an explosive unravelling of romance at the Coltrane Christmas party. Besides the Mark and Tania problem, all sorts of trouble is brewing between Tama and Shannon, Hamish and Sarah, Craig and Sarah, Baxter and Claire, Toni and Chris, Yvonne and Ian, and Jay and Maia.

"We've had Norman's car accident so we didn't want to do the traditional cliffhanger with lives in the balance," says producer Jason Daniel.

"We had a few relationship stories bubbling along and I wanted to bring them all to a head in such a way that they reached satisfying conclusions but also made you want to see where they'll go next year."

Daniel also wanted something festive - it's Christmas, after all - so formed a rock band of core cast to play at the Christmas bash, featuring none other than Judy on the drums.


"We didn't want it to look like suddenly they had a slick band happening and they'd turned into the Partridge family. So it's what you would expect at the office Christmas bash." Daniel snickers, "We did think about releasing it as a single."

The tension in the year's finale marks a trend that has been brewing for some time, where blood-racing action and psychotic villains have made way for melodrama.

"It is very relationship-focused," agrees writer Lynette Crawford-Williams. "The pace of some of the stories has slowed down a bit.

"We're enjoying the moments a bit more, trying to get every nook and cranny of the story. Sometimes on paper you think, 'Oh, I think we're going on a bit here', but then it comes on screen and people just love it."

So it's no surprise that the year's most watched episodes followed the big relationship storylines: oddly matched newlyweds Chris and Toni, and the love triangles between Sarah, Andrew and Craig, and Mark, Tania and Claire.

The one-hour lead up to Sarah and Andrew's wedding eclipsed ratings for Desperate Housewives when 676,400 tuned in to see whether Sarah would walk down the aisle or cave in to her feelings for Craig.

So where does that leave the baddie? This year we've seen the darker side of some of the Street's characters. Jay tried to get pregnant with Norman's sperm on the day of his funeral. Claire tried to escape the consequences of a hit-and-run.

And recurring character Robyn, admittedly a bitch anyway, spoiled Sarah and Andrew's wedding by dropping the bombshell that she was pregnant to the groom.

Last year was the year of Evil Dom. This year we met Hugo, the voyeuristic predator who would break into Ferndale homes and secretly film them.

Now there's no evil Dom or Hugo but the strangely likeable conman Hamish.

"It's always good to have someone there who is stirring the pot, someone behind your back where the audience is in the loop and feeling for the characters, wanting to look after them," Crawford-Williams says.

Daniel says he is veering away from the big-action plots and aiming for a more realistic approach to the bad guy.

"It's easy to create instant drama out of someone holding a knife to someone's throat. It's over in an instant and it doesn't leave you with a very interesting character at the end - it usually leaves you with a dead body.

" Hamish is interesting, but there was pressure from outside to make him the new Hugo: 'That psycho was really fun, let's have another one'. No, sorry."

Instead, Hamish has emerged as a humane scoundrel, who, despite embezzling the clinic's funds, has grown close to Sarah and the Jeffries clan.

With all this relationship conflict, how do you do it differently each time? "Well, you throw in some lesbians and a heterosexual guy," laughs Crawford-Williams. "I found that interesting: the Maia and Mark combination. Can a man and lesbian woman be just friends when he has feelings for her?"

Daniel has become more committed to giving a more balanced view between men and women. "There have been times on Shortland Street where the guys have had a pretty raw deal, and there has been a tendency to tell the stories from the female point of view and make the women stronger and the men a bit wimpy. How could that happen in New Zealand?"

Although we have said goodbye to old favourites Nick and Waverley, we have welcomed new faces .

Daniel says the newbies have to bring a fresh dynamic to the show, such as Baxter, a committed Christian. This week we also met the seductive Alice, and next year it's spunky young doctor TK.

The show will feel different, too. When it picks up again it will have lapsed in real time. The second episode unfolds between just two characters - an unorthodox approach to get into those nooks and crannies. Foley says it's not the shocking elements of people's personalities that make them work every time, it's the way we recognise ourselves in them.

Sex addiction, for instance, may not be a common affliction but the "more interesting side of it is what comes with the addiction - the guilt, the lying, the hiding things. Those are the things everyone can relate to."