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Is it you or is it me? Or is it Nick in a green beret. (Design: Archi Banal)
Is it you or is it me? Or is it Nick in a green beret. (Design: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureJanuary 25, 2024

PSA: Every episode of Shortland Street from 1992 is now on YouTube

Is it you or is it me? Or is it Nick in a green beret. (Design: Archi Banal)
Is it you or is it me? Or is it Nick in a green beret. (Design: Archi Banal)

Tara Ward reports back after watching Shortland Street’s first 159 episodes.

It’s not often you get to travel back in time, but the makers of Shortland Street have made it happen. As a summer treat, South Pacific Pictures recently put the entire first year of our longest running soap on YouTube, gifting us 159 episodes that originally screened between May and December 1992. It will take you roughly 61 hours to watch every episode, but great news: I’ve watched them all, and vintage Shortland Street is really, really good.

Rushed off their feet (Screengrab: YouTube)

What could be so good about rewatching a show made over 30 years ago, you might wonder? Turns out Shortland Street delivered cracking drama from its very first episode. Back in 1992, we’d never had a homegrown soap that screened five nights a week before, and Shortland Street needed to prove itself worthy of the primetime 7pm time slot. It was up against the likes of current affairs giant Holmes and less newsy Give Us a Clue, and it immediately embraced controversy. 

Shortland Street’s early episodes feature dramatic storylines about sexism, AIDS, child abuse, drug use, teen pregnancy, youth suicide, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders and armed robbery – and don’t get me started about Marj and Tom taking up rock’n’roll dancing to put the spice back into their marriage. They’re big issues, but they happen to a cast of relatable New Zealand characters, which means they could happen to any of us. The accents are ours, the people feel familiar. Thirty years later, we still know someone like office gossip Marj, innocent country girl Alison or no-nonsense CEO Michael McKenna, whose chunky 90s carphone was to die for. 

Also to die for: that pencil case (Screengrab: YouTube)

In 1992, there were no exploding volcanoes or helicopters crashing into the building. Instead, Shortland Street took the simple approach and focused on the relationships between a group of ordinary New Zealanders who worked together, fell in and out of love with each other, and said things like “Mr Lyn’s catheter bag, now!” a lot. While there’s a lot less Te Reo than there is now, the cast was culturally diverse for its time, with two prominent Māori characters in Dr Hone Ropata and nurse Jaki Manu and Samoan ambulance officer Sam Aleni. It’s a treat to see Temuera Morrison, Danielle Cormack and Martin Henderson in the roles that helped them become international stars, and there’s an energy and bite to the writing. Also, has there ever been a cooler doctor in Ferndale than the brooding, mysterious Hone Ropata? The answer is no. 

The definition of cool circa 1992 (Screengrab: YouTube)

Of course, we also meet a young Dr Chris Warner, the iconic hospital hornbag who spends the first episode skiving off work to give an aerobics instructor the glad eye, and the next three decades trying to make up for it. His endless love affairs take place in a world filled with fax machines, enormous computers and weird patterned shirts, which are ugly but so old that they’re probably about to come back into fashion. Gina’s earring collection is spectacular, Jenny keeps three phone books on her bench. Every set detail is a piece from our collective past, from Marj doing a women’s magazine quiz to see if she’s a tigress in bed, to the solar-powered calculator that villain Darryl woos Kirsty with. 

Marj, Kirsty and Stuart discuss the latest developments in 90s earplugs (Screengrab: YouTube)

But in its best, most powerful moments, early Shortland Street packs an emotional punch that transcends its humble 90s beginnings. There’s the brutal shock of Sarah dying of melanoma during her surprise birthday party, the scandal of Chris breaking up with Alison while she was trying on her wedding dress, and the heartbreak of strict Catholic Marj falling apart with shame when she’s contacted by the daughter she secretly gave up for adoption. If that doesn’t make you weepy, realising you could buy a latte for $2 at Gina’s cafe will surely be the end of us all. 

Also, please tip your scalpel to Shortland Street for nailing so many dramatic end-of-episode cliffhangers, including this nerve-wracking climax where Michael McKenna wonders whether he should let his mother marry another man: 

OMG hope you’re OK Mike (Screengrab: YouTube)

I may have heard the Shortland Street theme song (the original version, with lyrics!) over 100 times, but it’s a joy to rewatch these early episodes with the knowledge that not only did this earnest new series survive, it thrived. The 1992 episodes prove that Shortland Street was always the little show that could – a homegrown soap that punched above its weight from the very first episode and went on to dominate New Zealand’s television landscape for the next three decades. It’s not perfect, of course, but Shortland Street’s flaws have always been part of its charm. Early Shortland Street showed us who we were in a whole new way, and 32 years later, continues to be as unique as it ever was. 

The 1992 season of Shortland Street is available on YouTube. Shortland Street returns for 2024 on February 5 on TVNZ2 and streams on TVNZ+. 

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