Home and Away is proving resilient as rival Neighbours enters its sunset years.
MELISSA George may not be happy to have her association with Home and Away bandied about, but her recent on-air meltdown places the expatriate actor in the minority column.
Channel Seven's week-night soap opera is about to conclude its 25th year on television screens with a 90-minute finale this week, and it continues to provide a popular anchor in the network's ratings, despite deficiencies with its lead-ins. Night after night, Home and Away draws about 1 million metropolitan viewers.
Here's the synopsis from last Thursday's episode: ''Neil is released from prison, posing a threat to Lisa and the Walkers, and Jett doesn't trust John. Meanwhile, Dex suffers from a seizure, and Roo meddles in Harvey's friendships.'' And that, in just less than 22 minutes of screen time, is exactly what the show delivered. Like all well-run soaps, Home and Away is durable and dependable.
In fact, Dex didn't just have a seizure, he initially wandered around looking dazed, struggled to answer questions, and had his vision go out of focus while he was looking at a garish website that appeared to be called braininjuries.com. Short of stealing an MRI machine, the poor lad couldn't have made that looming seizure any more apparent.
A lot appears to happen on soap operas, but it actually doesn't. There's immense foreshadowing of any change - characters only die after they've affirmed their love for someone else, for example - and then there's much discussion about what has happened, why it happened, and whether it could happen again. Soap-opera characters are the least decisive people on television.
That's also why the shows are so easy to plug into. You might have missed the first 5645 episodes of Home and Away, but after a single night you can have a grip on the current conflicts, and after a handful you've got the series down pat. Much may have happened in the past, but on a serial - as in politics - the past is pliable. Just because someone stole your child and tried to run you over, it doesn't mean you can't share a special moment with them.
But if soaps prosper on familiarity and repetition, why has Home and Away stayed strong while the once-dominant Neighbours has been reduced to screening in the digital ghetto of Network Ten's Channel Eleven, where it now draws a quarter of the audience its one-time rival does? Even just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable to see Erinsborough falling away against Summer Bay.
While Neighbours reflected a Victorian outlook, and Home and Away one from NSW (very little can stop these characters walking along the beach), in recent years the latter has ratcheted up the storylines, adding an interest in crime and violent conflict to the personal travails of the often young cast; I'm fairly certain Neighbours never had a race riot break out.
Home and Away has got a lot of mileage, and done much to bring tribal tattoos into the mainstream, with surf gang the River Boys, who have provided the soap with a surplus of bad-boy characters to alternately wreck and rehabilitate. The clan is currently in court, which allows lawyers to solemnly ask whether, ''Your father asked Casey to shoot him?''
Yet, despite the drug dealing, fights and on-off entanglements, the older residents of Summer Bay live a carefree life epitomised by the ability of the ever-present Ray Meagher, as Alf, to speak only in flamin' cliches. Georgie Parker, as Alf's daughter, and Marcus Graham, as her fiance, have nothing more to do than plan a wedding that's spinning out of control and threatening - wait for it - to divide them.
The two, both fine actors, aren't exactly being challenged, but in a world where younger characters are seemingly named for airport control-tower chatter (Indy, Romeo, Brax, Jett - you're cleared for takeoff) they're there to smooth over the increasing contrast between the generations. On Home and Away you can be a bridesmaid or get beaten up and, apparently, each is equally trying.