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Comment > Back To The Future by Conor

Neighbours. Everybody needs good Neighbours. Or do they? If you watched the period between 2005 and 2007, you could be forgiven for being a a little bit confused. Though no one can deny that the show had never been more exciting, unpredictable and explosive, many were saddened to see the realistic charm that made Neighbours unique brushed aside in favour of a more dramatic approach. And though many enjoyed this new era at its beginning, by early 2007 even the most die-hard fan was bored by yet another shooting, bombing and sagas of couples who fell in and out of bed at every available opportunity. Following declining ratings and increasing criticism among the fans, Neighbours is heading 'Back to Basics' - a return to tales of families and relationships with stories that make us laugh and cry in equal measure. In short, the very things that made the show the worldwide phenomenon that it is today.

Following the 2004 season was certainly not an easy task. The season was acclaimed by the fan community, the average viewer and the critics alike. Neighbours was relishing it's new found confidence and with a strong cast, it tackled serious plots, handling them in a mature manner whilst still retaining the comedy and light-heartedness that has always separated the show from its fellow soap operas. And after a terrific year, the season culminated in perhaps one of the most shocking moments in the show's history, when the Lassiter's Complex was engulfed in a fiery inferno and the familiar face of Paul Robinson appeared in the crowd.

Roll on 2005. A huge year for Neighbours in more ways than one. It was the show's 20th anniversary, promising the return of many well-loved characters, the ratings were still strong, fresh from the success of 2004 and long-term fans rejoiced as it was announced that Stefan Dennis' return to the show was to be a permanent one. For the fans who had watched since the beginning, it was simply amazing news. But arguably, it was to be this character that divided the audience more than anything and for some, signalled a change in the show for the worse. Many complained that the Paul Robinson that returned, was a changed man from his last appearance in 1993. More like an outright villain, bordering on panto, rather than the flawed and selfish yet essentially good man he was when he left. On the other hand, others were just glad to have such a legendary character back in the ensemble. But this was to be the first criticism of many in a season when the cracks began to appear in Neighbours.

Characters seemed to lack the consistency that is integral in order to make a good soap opera. If we can't believe the characters or trust their reactions to events, they how can we care? Take Sindi's exit, for example. Marisa Warrington's acting could not be faulted, but did anyone really believe that ditzy, lovable Sindi was capable of the things she did in her last few months? Not only was it unbelievable and rather poorly handled, it was, at the very least, an odd way to write out one of the most popular characters in recent years: a character and an actress who deserved so much more.

In late 2005, one single event changed the dynamics of the show entirely. A joy flight crashed into Bass Strait leaving the lives of many Ramsay Street favourites in danger and launching into a storyline that became one of the main plot points of 2006. Though once again, its execution could not be faulted, especially considering the show's budget and as always, it was nice to see a storyline that wasn't wrapped up in a matter of episodes but something wasn't quite right.

Was it just a tad too coincidental that the only major casualties were the Bishop family - David, Liljana and Serena? Perhaps. It was certainly a shock to see their characters depart from the show considering just how much potential they had left. Losing three talented actors and arguably irreversibly alienating the character of Harold forever was a bold move. And though the plane crash certainly had a huge effect on Harold, some viewers criticized the reactions of other characters, who quickly moved on from the events and lamented little for their departed neighbours. As 2005 drew to a close with street stalwart Harold, in his grief-stricken state, trying to kill Paul Robinson, it was clear that on the current Neighbours, anything could happen.

As Neighbours launched into 2006, the bomber of the joy flight was revealed as Robert Robinson, who living under the identity of his comatose brother Cameron, set about destroying Paul's life leading to a dramatic shoot-out at Paul's fake wedding to Gail. Not long after, 'good twin' Cameron was unceremoniously run over by neighbour Max Hoyland and later died, after a case of mistaken identity. Yes, the acting was great and it was fantastic to see the next generation of Robinsons onscreen but in one fell swoop, the potential for two great new regular characters in Robert and Cameron was totally gone. And you had to wonder, just what would happen next? How far would they have to go to top it? More importantly, did we care?

In previous years, events on this scale had been few and far between. And because these huge events were indeed so rare, it made them all the more special and dramatic when they actually happened. And with Neighbours from 2005 to 2007, they were happening all too often and thus the effect on the viewers was one of boredom instead of awe. Baby-obsessed stalkers, yet another crazy scheme from resident villain Paul and apprentice Elle - both of whom have had more changes in personality than they've had hot dinners and ever-changing relationships without any depth became the order of the day. And the little touches like over-the-fence bickering or solving problems over a cup of coffee were long gone.

Yet alongside these plots, we were treated to the sheer brilliance of the nostalgia-laden anniversary week, the culmination of Izzy's baby lies, the arrival of the popular Timmins clan, the long-awaited reunion of Karl and Susan, the excellent handling of Stingray's death and a terrific new romance in Rosie and Frazer. Yet there just weren't enough of these types of plots. The balance wasn't right. And though the show was certainly not terrible by any means, it just wasn't 'Neighbours.' Something was missing and not just the fans but even the casual viewers were switching off. It was clear that something needed to change. And in early 2007, it was announced that Neighbours was going 'Back to Basics.'

It's often been said that what makes Neighbours great is its simplicity. It's suburbia, albeit a slightly exaggerated version. But nonetheless it has always maintained that tight knit, community-based, 'cosy' feeling. And although, it isn't fair to say that this was lost entirely, it was often overshadowed by the latest unnecessary drama. The new approach is setting about putting the heart and soul back into Neighbours and this week in the UK sees the beginning of this.

Apart from the cosmetic differences with the new titles, improved sets etc., the real changes will be a long-term process. Noticeably the cast has been overhauled and we have already said, or soon will say, goodbye to quite a few characters. However as characters depart, others arrive and the Parkers and the Napiers will join our Ramsay Street residents and see the beginning of a much larger focus on family - a trait that, although unwillingly, had become lost in the past few years. Relationships, be it friendship or love will also be focused upon, with strong links being developed between characters, a far cry from some of the more obscure relationships we've witnessed lately. And lastly, returning to what has been dubbed 'heartland' storylines, will add the much-missed realism the show had lost.

It could in fact be said that in order for the show to progress into the future, they first had to recapture the very qualities that made us fall in love with the show in the first place. With a strong, talented cast, the show's production values raised (at last) and a return to the qualities and values itís noted for: a mixture of drama, comedy, tears and romance, perhaps Neighbours has once again found the perfect blend.

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