By ANA SAMWAYS

As Shortland Street enters its 10th year, it's hard to avoid asking if New Zealand's longest-running soap has done its dash, is past its prime or has bitten the bullet.

If you're sitting on the fence, consider this: it hasn't resorted to recycling actors who died in a previous series, marrying-off the romantic leads or putting the most adored character into a coma, all of which are sure signs of a rapid demise.

The ratings are still high and stable - although you could argue that would be the case whatever you put against Holmes and repeats of Home Improvement.

But on the whole, Shortland Street seems to have mistaken itself for a drama. Furrowed brows, tears and internal turmoil - a week into this year's season and we're taking ourselves a little too seriously, aren't we?

Rachel is kidnapped by her psychotic ex, Jack, and taken to his bach for a mock wedding. He then throws he himself into the path of rural traffic and dies. Enter Dr Chris Warner without any mental disorders, other than a touch of narcissism, and hey presto, a new boyfriend.

Meanwhile, Marshall's 18th birthday turns into a real blast when his knack for chemistry and attempt to make a few pills results in the family home being blown to smitherines and his mum being blinded.

Then Mehi catches her mum snogging someone other than her dad and runs away with Marshall.

And then, nurse Toni finds out she's been knocked-up after having had more than one doctor in the house - Chris and Adam are frontrunners for fatherhood.

Finally, Nick's gravy-train grinds to a halt and the last member of the original cast leaves for London, without Waverly. Unlikely to turn up on Mercy Peak, this could be the last time we'll see Nick on our screens.

The cliffhanger stories are all paid off nicely and are all good dramatic stories, but there's not a chuckle in sight. A soap's most endearing quality is the ability to laugh at itself.

The programme is screaming out for a baddie - not a psychotic whose comeuppance is guaranteed, just your run-of-the-mill nasty who gets away with it. A character who is related to someone and who makes viewers swing from hatred to understanding - Carla was a beaut.

Or maybe even someone just downright sleazy at whom we can roll our eyes while secretly finding them quite attractive.

And how about a good, old-fashioned divorce? One in which neither character leaves the show and there are kids to consider? Stories galore, for all ages and it's cheaper to shoot than a wedding.

While the viewers are still watching in droves, the soap's advertising agency doesn't appear to be. Billboards heralding the return of Shortland Street after the summer break ask if our temperature is rising and if we want to play doctors and nurses - er, not really.

Very odd, considering the show's much-publicised shift from shallow, urban goings-on to a more family-centric beast.

After nine years, producers changed direction, decided to make the private clinic a public hospital, added two new, poor families and, following a huge cast-cull, introduced a raft of new faces.

The changes were designed to reflect a wider range of ages, backgrounds and experiences within the characters. It has certainly left Ponsonby and moved south.

And if you still don't "get it", maybe a drive out of your residential comfort zone is in order.

* Shortland Street, TV2, 7.00 pm weekdays