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Sunday Essay Shorty Lena Lam Feature image

Summer 2022January 9, 2023

Growing up with Shortland Street

Sunday Essay Shorty Lena Lam Feature image

An ode to Shortland Street by Rebecca K Reilly, who watched from the very beginning.

First published May 29, 2022 as part of The Sunday Essay, made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustration by Lena Lam

In 1992, when I was nine months old and my mum was the same age as I am now, she started studying towards a diploma of teaching at Auckland College of Education, which at the time was a course paid for by the government to get single mothers off the domestic purposes benefit. At the same time as this, two things happened: my mum saw an optometrist who told her that she needed to watch half an hour of TV per night to give her eyes a break from studying, and Shortland Street started airing every weeknight at 7pm. I do not know who this optometrist was, probably someone who worked at an OPSM in WestCity when it was still called Henderson Square, but my mum likes following instructions and hates questioning authority so we watched Shortland Street for half an hour at 7pm every weeknight (except it was for one hour on Mondays during winter and not at all for four weeks in the summer, of course) for the next 25 years. We had to. The optometrist said. It was medicinal.

I don’t remember a time where we ever didn’t watch Shortland Street. We watched it on our 14-inch TV which didn’t have a remote and was later stolen while we were at Christmas in the Park. We watched it on our replacement 14-inch TV with remote, which I remember picking up from Bond+Bond with the insurance payment, feeling very glamorous to have been robbed and to be getting a new TV out of it. We’d watch it on holiday at the Motel Six in Hamilton or at my gran’s house. After the landlord sold our unit, we moved to Whenuapai and I briefly became interested in the outdoors (rollerblading in a circle on the deck and taking my scooter to the dairy) but I was always back inside for Shortland Street, even though there was bad reception there and you had to hold the aerial in the right place.

At our next house in Glen Eden we got upgraded to a more regular-sized TV when my mum went out with someone who didn’t like watching the rugby on a 14-inch screen. I had given up on my outdoor lifestyle because the street we lived on was too steep, but I started being more social because I was a teen, which at the time meant going to Burger King for four hours, looking at a pixellated nude on someone’s camera phone and talking about the end of Donnie Darko. I didn’t have to miss out on Shortland Street though, because of the introduction of “+1” and the weekend omnibus. When I moved out, I watched it on demand. When I moved to Germany, I watched it on Youtube.

If I was not caught up, my mum would explain whole episodes to me, which was confusing because she didn’t remember any of the names of the characters or locations. I think all mothers are like this: after you name a baby you just forget what everyone else in the world is called, except three of your colleagues who no one else knows, and start all subsequent stories from the middle. Thing and thing were at the place that used to be the R Bar but that guy was sitting on the other side and then the next day he interviewed to be a nurse. Then thing’s mother what’s-her-name was working at reception and didn’t let him in because they were screening for foot and mouth and then at the end Chris’ girlfriend or whoever, she maybe had it because she’d been to England and it was her brother. That sort of thing.

I myself could never have a child as it’s one of my main joys in life to tell compelling anecdotes with specific details, including relaying – on a podcast about something else – the 2003 Shortland Street plot where Waverley forgot to get Christmas presents for the social club and so booked everyone in for a free mammogram.

My favourite storylines have always been the extremely loose ones that came out of nowhere. In a hospital soap, you can expect a lot of mysterious diseases, explosions, stealing drugs and relationships with inappropriate power imbalances. What you don’t expect is a storyline about cybercrime or someone making a sculpture of a dick out of their own frozen piss for a high school art class, and then that same character later going on to temporarily blind their own mother after exploding the family home cooking meth. A doctor performing experimental surgery on himself and then pretending he went to Rotorua and fell off the luge. An old man called Doobie Green losing his bag of weed and yelling at the hospital receptionist, where’s my dak, my 420.

I have a particular fondness for all the fake non-copyrighted Auckland-but-not-Auckland terms they have in Ferndale: Q Road, GameCentre consoles, everyone’s favourite social site MyLife and especially the great landmark of Ferndale city, Big Tower. You can’t make this stuff up. Except, well, people do, it’s my understanding that a team of people do make this stuff up on a studio lot in the very same suburb I started watching it. I do wonder what it would be like to be a Shortland Street writer, spitballing the Doobie Green character, typing up a scene about a ticklish asexual. Reading the complaints people write into Mr Telly at the TV Guide about how there’s too many ticklish asexuals on TV at 7pm and it’s not good for the kids.

The plot I was personally most scarred by as a child was not any of the queer-coded ones, but when in 1998, Tiffany fell off a building and Johnny Marinovich had to decide whether to switch off her life support because she was brain dead. This is because my mum turned to me and told me that if such a situation occurred, I should switch her straight off. I have looked up the date of this episode and it aired two weeks after I turned seven. It’s my very strong opinion that there are two types of only children: ones with two parents who went to cafes at a young age, and ones with one parent who stayed up worrying about gaining power of attorney at seven years old.

Also, if your family is only two people, you can commit to a time system based around watching TV where everything takes place “before Shortland Street” or “after Shortland Street”. Sometimes going to bed immediately after the episode was no good. I still feel scarred from when Claire the receptionist was found wrapped in plastic in the skip behind the hospital as well. But that could have been because it’s always scary when they cut to credits with no music, and I was passionate about representation for women with dark hair on TV at the time.

We had to take what we could get in terms of representation in the 00s – a receptionist with brown hair, a femme lesbian wedding and an ominous note on a taonga puoro every time something Māori happened. The next most horrific plot was when Waverley cut Nick’s hair off when he was asleep. I have always been afraid that someone would do this to me, I’m not sure why, maybe I subconsciously and ridiculously relate to the Biblical character of Samson. If I were in the Bible, I’d surely just be one of the women carrying around a pot as a metaphor.

I don’t watch Shortland Street any more and I don’t really know why. I just sort of stopped somehow. My mum doesn’t watch it either. It’s so difficult to remember what life was like in the couple of years immediately before the pandemic, not long enough ago to feel like you were a different person then but in practice so different to how things are now that it does feel like it was someone else living that life. Some other person who was so busy they didn’t have time to watch 100 minutes of hospital soap per week. They went to Melbourne for a week and then came back and it was the film festival and they couldn’t keep up any more and didn’t know where Murray had gone or why Damo the IT guy had become a prominent character.

Even though when I change the channel after The Chase I don’t recognise Chris Warner’s mysterious adult triplet children or know why so many people are messing around with gangs after what happened to Kieran (who fell off a cliff in 2010 during a fight with someone called White Dragon due to his involvement in criminal activity in the Thai sex work industry), the Street still makes up a significant chunk of my youthful memories, be it Aleesha poking holes in condoms or Lionel getting washed off a rock by a big wave. And I would not have it any other way.

I think there’s still a lingering sense of cultural cringe in this country where we think that everything we produce is slightly worse than what everyone else can do, and that the ideal media products, songs, movies, books, are ones that are indistinguishable from ones that have come out of the UK or America. I don’t feel like this at all. I love everything that’s come out of New Zealand in my lifetime, Props Boy’s stupid bucket hat, the hubba-hubba ads, whatever the fuck Party Animals was where one of the characters’ point of difference was having big fingertips. Coronation Street is nothing compared to Marj dying of a heart attack during a volcanic eruption and Te Hana Hudson trying to convince everyone that you can kiss whoever at Christmas, even if you’re married.

To end on an artistic note, I present this poem I wrote for an English paper in 2015. The assignment was to read Selina Tusitala Marsh’s poem “googling tusitala” and use some kind of technology to create your own found-text “writing sample”. Naturally, I searched my Messenger history for mentions of Shortland Street plots. I received an A–, as I did for every assignment during the course, and felt fairly good about myself until I overheard some people at the exam talking about how it was the easiest A+ paper they’d ever taken. I thought writing probably just wasn’t for me.

20/07/2015 19:54
I’m so scared watching shortland street
so many murders and cars on fire

30/07/2015 19:16
great line: “just because people are gay doesn’t mean they like eating quiche”

30/07/2015 21:50
I am disappointed
one of my favourite characters was being annoying
and knocked a vase all over someone’s dinner
so she had to go to the supermarket and get more food
now she’s dead in the forest

17/10/2014 11:07
very weird unrealistic storyline
a dad from a farm comes to the city to meet his son’s fiancee
he hates her because he’s a farm guy who loves shooting stuff
she didn’t go to university and works in an office which is not good enough

17/07/2015 19:34
that was so scary, the guy was just waking up from his coma
his ex-wife the Māori manipulator character was saying
I’m so sorry babe, and injecting poison into his IV

02/02/2015 09:35
very nz moment
guy has a hangover so he’s lying in a park with a jumper over his face
he said he just wants to keep getting on it
and live in the moment rather than doing his job
so his friend hit him on the head and said,
Have fun with your new life moron

uh oh it look like next week she accidentally runs him over with an ambulance

20/01/2015 09:13
There was a really great scene where some people were having sex on the floor
the flatmate came in and the guy said,
Oh sorry we were just doing pilates if you want to join us

21/07/2014 15:19
first year out of school is real weird
problems include:
not being able to get a loan at the bank
credit card debt
business plans going either really well or really bad
deciding if you want to be a drug dealer

18/11/2014 20:21
My year 9 careers quiz told me to be a screenwriter on shortland street

Keep going!