By FRANCES GRANT



Mercy Peak is a drama about the ups and downs of life in a small New Zealand town. Some characters have had more than their fair share of downs.



When the series returns tonight (TV One, 8.35pm), the tide could be about to turn for one of the show's more put-upon characters, married-to-the-job copper Ken Wilder. Romance is in the wind for the policeman who took a few severe knocks in the line of duty in the last season.



Actor Tim Balme, who plays Ken, agrees it's about time fortune smiled upon his character. "It's a good call because of where Ken's come from in his life. He basically hit the mid-30 mark and he hasn't had a lot of luck in love - probably due to him trying too hard rather than not finding the right person."

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Mercy Peak fans will know, however, that with Ken's self-esteem deficiency the path of true love is not likely to run smooth.



"We know now that if Ken actually comes across someone who has been right in front of him all along, who has time for him and cares for him, then you know that road's not going to be plain sailing because chances are Ken may overcook things."



Ken may complicate his personal life but he sees his job as a cut-and-dried, good guy-bad guy affair. And the character has struck a chord with real-life smalltown police, says Balme.



"Ken prides himself on being professionally pretty good; he can deal with all sorts of situations. I think he's a good example of policing and it's been interesting getting feedback from that sector.



"They [the police] have been really pleased ... Ken is a real guy, a real cop, he makes some mistakes like any cop does but it's how he deals with them and accepts them. He's a realistic portrayal of a cop in a small town."



Balme, who won a New Zealand Television Award for best supporting actor for the role this year and who played memorable bad boy Greg Feeney on Shortland Street, says he was astonished when asked to audition for a policeman role. "I said to my agent, 'Have they made a mistake here?' Then I realised if they were looking for me, it meant they were looking for a different take on your stereotypical cop thing - they wanted something more down-home."



That down-home quality of Mercy Peak is the key to the show's appeal, he says. "Just the fact that it has been a genuine attempt to portray New Zealand as it is. We're not trying to emulate an American show or a British show, we're just saying, 'This is it."'



The show's return also sees change for the murderously mad Amanda, the character played by Balme's real-life partner, Katie Wolfe. No, says Balme, the couple didn't take the show home with them. "No, we've got plenty of other things to talk about."



The two characters' paths seldom cross in the small town of Bassett and that is a good thing, he says. "We've worked together in close proximity, been there, done that, and we're not particularly interested in doing it again."



Meanwhile, Balme says, his character Ken is gradually putting Greg Feeney in the shade in terms of public recognition. "Basically it comes down to whether I've had a shave or not, or how long my hair is."