By FRANCES GRANT
Remember the days when Shortland Street catered to Aucklanders' fantasies about living in a good-looking town where everybody had groovy clothes and advanced interior design skills?
Imagine if you had heard then cosmetic surgeon Dr Warner, aka Dr Love, come out with a community-minded line such as: "No longer is health care an individual responsibility." Or glossy little rich bitch Rachel McKenna issuing this instruction: "You'll be outside to greet the tangata whenua at one o'clock."
How times have changed. Who would have thought so much political correctness could be packed into one little soap opera?
When the revamp of our national sudser and longest-running drama was announced, maker South Pacific Pictures promised it would be more "family friendly" and reflect a changed national mood. "More Government friendly," would have been a more accurate description.
Over five action-packed episodes last week, the clinic underwent a transformation from private to public hospital.
Out have gone the corporate managers with their power suits and rampant libidos. In has come a power woman modelled on the lines of those running the country.
Patricia Hewitt, in her sensible grey suit, is authoritative and formidable. There's not a Christine Rankin-like earring or any other note of frivolity to be seen.
Hewitt, the new CEO, is also a surgeon and, she makes it plain, no corporate bean counter. "At least I understand how hospitals work and the services we need, unlike some of our learned business colleagues," she tells Dr Warner.
Meanwhile, the new nursing director, the lemon-faced Judy Brownlee (Donogh Rees), is quickly putting paid to staff flirting or idle gossip.
The party days of invisible patients and endless private games of doctors and nurses are over. In the new public hospital they actually have to do some medicine.
Out has gone a cast dominated by good-looking young things with well-appointed apartments and complicated love lives. In has come the grim reality of the social divide.
The have-not Hudsons arrived in the city last week and found it an unforgiving place for tangata whenua in a beat-up old car. They're living in a camping ground where the young daughter has had her underwear stolen by a pervert.
The have-not Heywards, especially mum Barb (Annie Whittle), have white trash wardrobes and leanings. When Barb can't face up to life, she can be found at the bar soaking up the gin.
They also have the kind of conspicuously tasteless decor which indicate that props and wardrobe have had a field day around the secondhand shops of the more modest Auckland suburbs.
Heyward son Adam has made good but doesn't escape the show's new pompous politics: "What about those people tonight!," he says after attending a charity ball to raise money for the new public hospital. "Hilary and Thomas, Henry and Jane, Virginia and Toby. Not a Tracey or Trevor in sight, except for serving maybe."
The message is clear: Shortland Street is determined to give us a strong dose of reality.
Receptionist Barb works overtime but doesn't get paid. "Overtime? Died out in the 80s." Pakeha are racially prejudiced, everybody makes a nod to Maori protocol; patients get real diseases and staff respond with sentiments such as "there's no justice when someone like Dennis gets a death sentence."
Life's not fair but, it must be asked, is it the business of a soap opera to portray this?
At least the show, while busy pandering to leftist sensibilities and illustrating the grim realities of the social divide, has not lost its trademark sense of humour. And when the characters are not being forced to spout lines from the show's new political manifesto, they and their potential storylines do make the show look stronger.
"We are returning medicine to where it belongs - to you," smarmy Dr Warner oozed at the press conference at the new public hospital opening. But what if viewers want their frivolous, escapist soapy back? What happens then?
By FRANCES GRANT