When civilisation ends, Shortland Street will go on

by Diana Wichtel / 09 June, 2017
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Life is short. Shortland Street, apparently, goes on forever. How is that fair?

Twenty-five years: it’s an anniversary that demands a decent soap-tastrophe. The writers went for a conveniently feature-length eruption of that mighty sleeping giant, Mt Ferndale. This was the Pak’nSave of natural disasters, the mayhem mostly indicated by a lot of stage coughing, ash-smeared windows and make-up that suggested the cast was spending what might have been its final moments auditioning for The Walking Dead.

Several characters passed the time trying, and mostly failing, to murder each other. “He drugged me. Why shouldn’t I do the same with him?” explained Sass in the irrefutable logic of Planet Soap. Jack Tame demonstrated that he can’t act, even when playing himself.

The special said so much about what a peculiar little nation we are that if John Oliver or Jimmy Kimmel ever get hold of it, we’re toast.

For a story set in a hospital during an earthquake, science didn’t get much of a look-in. Receptionist Lianne announced she’d caused the eruption by cursing Chris Warner’s 50th birthday party. Pregnant oncologist Eve immediately tramped off to the eruption to return, unscathed, clutching a volcanic rock like Ferndale’s answer to Twin Peaks’ Log Lady. “This is a purge,” she intoned. “It’s a cleansing fire. Only the strong will survive.” The medical explanation for her condition: “volcanic gas” has “got into her brain”.

Poor old Chris Warner. It is a soap truth universally acknowledged that a character may start out as Dr Love, but if he hangs around long enough he will become Ken Barlow. There was bad news about his health, and his birthday party actually did seem to be cursed. “We’re all just hanging on by a thread,” he moaned. That thread soon snapped, plunging him into an abyss of wild-eyed overacting.

Well, he had to compete with characters past, wheeled on to ham it up like it was Christmas. Nick Harrison – “Nick, you moron” as he used to be affectionately known – spouted lines designed to outdo the recent Warner classic, “Please tell me that is not your penis!” But Nick’s “I’m a sperm volcano” could not trump Eve’s “You’ve got miscarriage all over your face”. You longed for the days when they were forbidden to say “placenta”.

A highlight was the return of original Shortie receptionist Marj, still delivering dialogue deadlier than volcano gas: “Poppycock! I’m fit as a fiddle!” There was a glimpse of the late, lamented Lionel. He took in the mad scenes at the hospital and thought better of it. “I don’t know who you are,” he told Warner, “and you’ve got sick on your shoes.” As Waverley put it, “It’s a dark, dangerous, volcano-crazy world out there.”

Every soap civil emergency will have a heavily pregnant woman who will make like a homing pigeon for the nearest faulty lift, where she will get stuck long enough to give birth. But Marj was already in the lift having angina and planning her funeral. She may start a trend. What goes better with a plain wicker casket than Kiri Te Kanawa?

So when Lucy went into labour, she had to make do with a car. “I’m stuck to the seat,” she overshared. Never mind volcanic eruptions: her husband, Ali, spoke for all Aucklanders when he cried, “If only I could get out of this stupid traffic!” The obligatory punishing birth scene – “Ow! Ow! Ow!”– managed to be louder than Mt Ferndale.

Oh, Shortland Street, you were so bonkers I might have to start watching again, if only to see if Lucy bled to death in the interests of a respectable soap special body count (spoiler alert: RIP).

Plenty of time – the way this dark and dangerous, crazy world is going, civilisation as we know it may end over the next 25 years but no doubt Shortie will still be going strong.

Shortland Street, TVNZ 2, weeknights, 7pm.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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