What did you get for your birthday? I got a trending hashtag:
So this is how a revolution begins. An inequality exists (expats are unable to watch Shortland Street on TVNZ On Demand because of geoblocking). The plight of the oppressed becomes more urgent (this week it is the 20th anniversary of the national soap opera). One member of society is singled out for particularly unfair treatment (the feature-length anniversary cliffhanger is screening in NZ on my birthday. I can’t watch it because I am not in New Zealand. The humanity!). Two blokes start a hashtag (hey, it’s cheaper than birthday drinks) and just like that, we are all Gemma Gracewood.
Thanks, big thanks, to South Pacific Pictures for sorting out a 48-hour geoblock-free window with their international rights holders, and to Russell and Toby for going nutty on my tongue-in-cheek (but quietly hopeful) tweet. Judging by my soc-med feeds, it’s going down well with the homesick diaspora. There are also a few blah blah blah why don’t you use your powers for good how is this politically important where’s the love for real issues shouldn’t you be using social media to save the world etc. Well, did you see the episode where Evan – who was, heroically, leaving school to provide for his knocked-up teenage girlfriend – was being shown around the laundry department at Shortland Street Hospital?
The laundry boss’s explanation about his pay (“it ranges from appalling to woeful” – I’m paraphrasing) and conditions (“If you’re no good we can get rid of you within three months with no explanation” – ditto) and reasoning (“Don’t moan to me, I didn’t vote for the current lot” – oosh!) was some of the best goddamned political writing in a local production since the last thing Dave Armstrong did. So go and moan to someone else. But I also promise to use my powers for good, now that I see how powerful those powers are. Shorty Street 4 evs.
Twenty years this Friday, eh? A milestone that brings Aotearoa’s national soap opera that little bit closer to Country Calendar and Fair Go in terms of record runs on the local goggle-box. When the first episode (click the link, watch it in full) aired back in 1992, I was mid-way through my degree in TV production and we studied the heck out of that puppy. A couple of years later the gorgeous Libby Magee (co-host of the 95bFM Women’s Show, RIP) got me a two-week internship at the storyliners’ table. My audition for that gig involved knocking back several gins at Ponsonby Road’s Surrender Dorothy (also RIP) with the then storylining head, and dazzling him with my intricate knowledge of Days of Our Lives plot twists (specifically, the many faces of Roman Brady). I’m not sure what I contributed at the table apart from making tea in a sort of gobsmacked, glazed-eyed, stalkery fashion for the other storyliners, and an Ebola scare suggestion, but that fortnight gave me the valuable structural knowledge that keeps me watching Shortland Street today (Rebecca Barry Hill writes about the process in this NZ Herald story).
I’m not so much the episode-by-episode type; I’m more of a perverse long-term story arc nerd. I enjoy trying to predict the choices a character will make, and unleashing my armchair critic when there’s an unlikely tonal shift. I didn’t really buy that long, boring period in the early 2000s when the nutty humour seemed to dry up. It found its feet again with Libby and Gerald, and I picked Luke Durville’s elevation to core cast way back when he was a creepy, one-line featured extra. The guy oozed gothic charisma. It’s also good to see Zac back. Shorty viewers know him as the hot stuff who boffed Julia Thornton & Rachel McKenna, but I know him as my little brother’s schoolmate who wouldn’t hurt a fly. I love watching real-life nice people play crazy (helloooo Carla Crozier!).
This Christmas episode from 1995 – normally NZ On Screen has excerpts of it but for this 20th Anniversary season, South Pacific Pictures has kindly let them host the full-length version for a bit – contains so much of what makes soap work. It’s the fateful, chaotic cliffhanger in which a truck driven by a drunk abusive dad crashes into the clinic reception on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, Nick has left his girlfriend’s baby at the supermarket (my favourite line from the ep: Rangi – “That’s not a miracle, mate. That’s a doll.”). As much as I’m loving the indulgent, effects-rich feature-length cliffs of late, isn’t it amazing how much they packed into a commercial half hour back then?
Consider the story arcs that are paid off and set up in that episode alone. 251 episodes earlier, goofy Lionel had finally won golden girl Kirsty’s heart, and beaten off sexy young Martin Henderson to take her up the aisle. (That episode is also on NZ On Screen.) But when the truck hits her, Kirsty is struck by amnesia. We know what happens next: did her wedding to Lionel even happen? Way to string out another year or two of storyline with characters whose arcs had seemingly completed. It seemed so soapy, but the blessing/curse of Shortland Street is that if it hasn’t happened in real life yet, it soon will.
Meanwhile, the comic love story between snarky Carmen and sensitive Guy is about to take a final, tragic turn aboard the old Auckland ferry, the Toroa. That was a brilliant piece of civic do-goodery, by the way. The Toroa sits high and dry in Henderson now, but once upon a time it was where Carmen took her last breath. But not before she got in a few digs at Guy’s big brother Chris for not letting Guy into the action over their father’s will. (As we now know, Chris had a point about responsibility: Guy turns up again years later a raging P-head with pointy ears and a toga.)
There are 90 minutes left of my birthday, so I’m off to spend them watching the gloriously ungeoblocked (for 48 hours) 2012 20th Anniversary Shortland Street Cliffhanger. Much as I’d love this to be a permanent arrangement, the income of South Pacific Pictures relies upon watertight international rights and restrictions. You can’t begrudge them that now that they’ve so brilliantly – in less than 24 hours – done this wee service to us expats. It’s a real pleasure to open up TVNZOnDemand and not read that offensive message: “This video is only available to New Zealand viewers”. I am a New Zealand viewer, dammit. I’m just not there right now.
Maybe we could just have the Sunday Shortland Street Omnibus open for 24 hours each week? No? No worries. I’ll still read the weekly recaps and picture in my head Evan’s googly eyes, Rachel’s pursed lips, TK’s gormless think-stare, Chris’s boufy hair…