It had two stellar seasons and has been remade in multiple countries. So why did Step Dave get cancelled?
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It appeared to be a show on the rise. Via Zoom, Sia Trokenheim flattens her palm and mimics a line graph going up. It looks like a plane taking off. She’s trying to prove how everyone who worked on Step Dave, a much-missed local TV show, loved it, believed in it, and thought it was successful.
“We reached so many hearts and households,” says the Swedish-born, Auckland-based actor, and star of the romantic drama. “I was 1,000% positive it was going to have a season three.”
Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Step Dave, which follows a mother-of-three attempting a lasting relationship with a much younger bartender, was cancelled in 2016 after two seasons, sparking a fan outcry. “This is one of the best shows to come out of New Zealand,” said one fanatic, on Facebook, after the news broke. “It could be global.”
It started with such high hopes. Trokenheim shrieked when she got the call, then asked her agent to repeat herself because she didn’t believe the news. “I had to go, ‘Can I just double check that you’re saying they’re offering me the role?'”
After confirmation, she put the phone down and shrieked again. “The rest I can’t remember.”
Trokenheim had been acting since the age of eight. She’d chased the lead role dream ever since, moving to New Zealand in 2001, graduating from drama school in 2003, then filming ads, making indie movies and starring in Auckland Theatre Company productions.
As well as two short stints on Shortland Street, she’d also won the Moa award for her performance in local film Everything We Loved.
She wasn’t a household name, and she wasn’t scoring major TV drama roles. When Step Dave came along, all that changed. The South Pacific Pictures production told the story of Cara Gray, a day spa owner who has a one-night stand with Dave Robinson, a bartender with pecs and dimples, played by Jono Kenyon.
During auditions with Kenyon, Trokenheim says she “sweated bullets”.
“I was going, ‘It’s up to me now, I can completely ruin this opportunity.'” She made it to the last two, then discovered by chance that she was up against a more experienced actor. She assumed she had no chance.
That’s why she shrieked – twice – when she got the call. Trokenheim had landed her dream role. “That was a bloody big deal,” she says. “I put everything into this role. Everything.”
After three months of all-day shoots, and with more than $6 million in NZ On Air funding, Step Dave’s first season began airing on TVNZ 2 in 2014. The reaction was positive, ratings were good and a second season was commissioned, receiving another $6 million in funding.
Yes, the days were long, and Trokenheim was a new mum herself, so juggling set schedules and motherhood took its toll. But that helped her connect with Cara. “What really interested me was to play a vulnerable woman,” she says. “I wanted women to relate to Cara. She was so … insecure and trying to follow her heart.”
It worked. Fans of the show would stop her in the street, send her emails, and write her Facebook messages, all declaring their love for her hard work.
In 2015, Step Dave’s second season ended with a cliffhanger: Dave found a positive pregnancy test in a rubbish bin, and the finale suggested it could be any number of characters. Afterwards, fans flooded Twitter with messages saying: “Another amazing season!” and “What a finale!”
“People were really getting into that storyline,” says Trokenheim. “It was so beautifully written. I thought, ‘That’s it … there’s no way it’s going to end now.’”
But on April 4, 2016, the bad news broke: Step Dave was no more. On Facebook, the production company denied speculation it was because Trokenheim was expecting her second baby, or that Kenyon was moving to America for work.
“It’s a decision that comes from the network that screens it,” the post said. “We are all just as disappointed as you guys are.”
Step Dave’s run was over. Its cliffhanger wasn’t going to be resolved. A South Pacific Pictures spokesperson told The Spinoff it was cancelled because of a ratings dip between season one and two, a time when viewers were faced with an ever-increasing range of streaming options, like Lightbox, Neon and Netflix.
Trokenheim was distraught. “I did go into this knowing it could end any day,” she says.
“And, eventually, it did.”
Five years have passed since Step Dave was cancelled, yet messages still land in Trokenheim’s inbox. It’s available via Neon, so New Zealanders are still discovering it. Fans from America, where Step Dave screens on Amazon Prime Video, message her about it as well.
“Years later I still get people [contacting me] from all over the world who somehow came across this online,” she says. “They wanted to know what happened. Why did it just stop? How could you finish it with a cliffhanger like that?” She doesn’t know how to reply.
She’s not the only one with conflicting memories. Kate McDermott, Step Dave’s creator, recently binge-watched the whole series to advise producers of a Greek adaptation. So far, the show’s been re-made in Hungarian, Russian and Chinese versions.
“It feels pretty good that the characters and stories that a bunch of New Zealanders wrote in a room in Henderson are having a life in other parts of the world,” says McDermott.
Lately, though, she’s been struggling with a sense of deja vu. Head High, another show McDermott wrote for, was recently cancelled after two seasons, just like Step Dave. “I’m feeling a very familiar kind of mourning,” says McDermott. She had big plans for Step Dave: a wedding, major death and the resolution of that cliffhanger were on the cards.
She describes a show’s cancellation as an intense disappointment. “It definitely never gets easier,” McDermott says. “It’s like a break-up … your imaginary friends who you spent so many hours, days, weeks with, being wrenched away from you.”
Imaginary they may be, but Trokenheim’s real life has taken a similar turn to her character’s since the end of Step Dave. She went through a divorce last year, and is dating a younger man. “It’s funny how I’ve become Cara later in life,” she says.
She now fully understands what her character was going through. “It was tough not knowing how this is going to go. If the kids wouldn’t accept him, I would totally understand.”
Trokenheim’s only performed sporadically since Step Dave ended. As well as being a mother of two, she’s owned New Lynn cafe The Tannery, worked behind the scenes on local productions, and has been writing as well. Lately, she’s been working in recruitment. She thinks she’ll return to acting when the time’s right.
“I’m never going to kick this acting thing,” she says. “When the kids are older I know I’m going to fall back into this.”
Like the rest of us in Tāmaki Makaurau, after a long day of recruitment and homeschooling in lockdown, Trokenheim turns the TV on to escape. “I can’t watch Squid Game,” she says. “I need the cake shows, the competitions.”
She pauses, realising what she really wants to see are things like her own show, the one that ended, brutally, five years ago.
“We need the uplifting shows, like Step Dave was, just to give us a bit of hope.”
This story was updated on October 26 to say Sia Trokenheim has had several TV and film roles since Step Dave ended.