By TIM WATKIN

It begins with flashing lights, bloodied bodies and people running - shown in the quick cuts of a big-city medical drama.

Out of the hospital doors and into the night strides Dr Nicky Somerville, asking, "Okay, what have we got?"

It's a pertinent question, one many viewers would have been asking when the first episode of Mercy Peak, the new South Pacific Pictures drama, screened last night.

It's the first local drama to play on TV One since the disappointment of Greenstone, and the first new New Zealand series since Street Legal showed such potential on TV2 last year.

So Mercy Peak carries a weight of expectation.

The good news is that there is much here to be hopeful, even excited, about. We may just have a little beauty of a drama on our hands.

Amid the trauma of an Auckland emergency unit, Dr Nicky Somerville (Sara Wiseman) has her heart broken and decides to leave the city lights behind.

The quick cuts fade into long shots of countryside, but the storyline's pace continues as she heads for a fresh start in smalltown New Zealand.

Bassett, to be precise, an imaginary town played by Warkworth, with a population of 5058, a health centre and a reputation for fine pork products.

There she finds a cast of characters who will provide the quirky and emotional stories that are sure to lie ahead as this trauma specialist tries to adapt to the life of a smalltown GP.

In last night's opener, Somerville had to come to terms with a dubious car accident, a boss who didn't want her and a town full of women extraordinarily eager to show her their breasts.

Quickly - and a little too conveniently - Somerville is flung into the town's woes and weirdness as these smalltown folk take her to their collective bosom.

Yep, you could say this is New Zealand's own Peak Practice, with echoes of The Flying Doctors, Ballykissangel or Providence.

This is not an original formula. There is a familiarity. But, thankfully, there is a freshness and sure-footedness in the programme that avoids contempt.

For a start, there is a comfortable New Zealandness about the programme and a keen eye for detail.

There are smokers hanging around outside buildings, Aucklanders making jokes about Christchurch, phrases like "there in a tick" and, nicely, a bit of Kim Hill on the radio.

Reassuringly, none of it is forced. It's part of the scenery rather than some form of cultural product placement as we've seen in the past.

In the opening storyline, with the breast-baring women, the writers risked making a right tit of themselves. I use that terrible pun as an example of the rather clunky scripting we've heard all too often in the past.

It is absent here. To their credit, writers Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan haven't overplayed their hand. The story clips along, the quirkiness is understated, and the characters' relationships revealed slowly.

Ah, yes, the characters. Somerville is established as an intelligent, headstrong woman. However, she risks becoming a bland centrepiece to the better defined characters that surround her.

There's the arrogant but mellowing Dr William Kingsley (Jeffrey Thomas), the bustling practice manager Louise Duval (tenderly played by Alison Bruce) and the grumpy vinter Kieran Masefield (Australian Renato Bartolomei).

Toss in Miriama Smith, John Leigh and Hilary Cleary for a start, and this is a top-drawer cast.

Best of all, there's the slightly sleazy and dorky cop, Ken Wilder, who tries to show off to the city doc by recalling his days in the crime cauldron of West Auckland, and the sweet but rather wet Alistair Kingsley.

Tim Balme and Craig Parker, respectively, put in perfectly judged performances that leave us wanting to get to know their characters better.

This is perhaps the most promising thing about Mercy Peak. The best TV dramas become hits because, above all, we care about the characters and want to tune in each week to see how they're getting on.

The first episode was a rather unsubtle start - like being introduced one by one to a group of strangers at a dinner party. But I like them already. They seem to have stories that I want to know more about, especially young Dr Kingsley.

What's more, Somerville is provided with a gorgeous home (so much for district health boards being cash-strapped), and enviable property never hurts in these programmes.

The writers seemed nervous to leave too many loose threads at the end of the first programme - it's all a bit neatly concluded.

But the mystery of the car crash is yet to be unravelled, family tensions hinted at remain unexplored, and the list of suitors for the attractive and very single Somerville numbers at least three.

We wait in hope for imaginative, insightful plots, some surprises and humour, and plenty of pathos.

The early buds are as encouraging as any New Zealand drama in recent memory. Now let's see if this talented cast is given the material that will make the show blossom.

* Mercy Peak, TV One, 8.30 pm Wednesday