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Comment > How Far Have We Come? by Si Hunt

There was a scene in our favourite soap that struck a chord with me recently. It was during the 'Josh sells gym supplements' plot that has been bubbling away lately, where our perfectly-formed hero is going to ever-desperate lengths to raise money for his unborn baby with flighty Amber. Josh was berated by his moralistic sister Imogen for telling a potential buyer at the Sports club that he'd have a better chance with the ladies if he bulked up, because bulked was what the girls were after these days. Imogen was outraged - how dare Josh make someone feel as if their outer appearance was all that mattered? And I thought to myself, "From THIS show? REALLY?"

Now, perhaps unfortunately, this aspect of Josh's activity hasn't been the main focus of the story, which has shifted towards another moral no-no, that said drugs are actually illegal. Also we shouldn't confuse what a character in the programme is saying with what the programme itself is saying - last week Josh actor Harley Bonner actually apologised via Twitter for "Josh being a knob", which is jolly nice of him really. However, it's something we must think about. The casting lately has been veering ever-more towards 'looks above talent'. This is not just my opinion - if you take a look at the acting pedigree of several new starters, it's nonexistent. But - oh look - they're all former models. Why were THEY hired then? You'll guess by now that my main targets in this little sermon are the vacuous Brennan brothers.

I remember when Mark was the biggest offender here. When his staccato delivery and habit of peeling his shirt off every week were cause for shouting at the screen. This now seems like a more innocent age. Compared to his hitherto-unmentioned brother Tyler, his acting is positively Shakespearean and his six-pack feeble (I'm not joking here - is it me or does poor Scott McGreggor look a bit embarrassed these days when forced to parade topless next to his more-ripped screen brothers? He's just not packing as much bulk!). But of more concern has been the CONSTANT stream of shameless reasons the show's storyliners have found to make Tyler strut around topless every single episode. If he's not having to shed his shirt for a sweaty basketball match on a suspiciously cloudy day, he's loitering around in the pool, and if he's not in the pool he's sauntering about the house in a towel. Even when he's not actually in an episode, you can bet your life he'll be in the Next Time trailer or recap - topless. Now this is starting to sound like me complaining when I really should just enjoy a good thing! The problem is it's too much. There is no subtly or teasing going on here - I think we'd got to stare at Tyler's ample pecs every episode for the first week, and he'd "got it all out" (well, as much as we were allowed to see) in some contrived strip-poker storyline by the end of the first fortnight. He's now got nothing left to show us. It's got boring.

Perhaps that's why the producers resorted to bringing in a THIRD strapping brother, Aaron. Again, he's a model with little or no acting ability. To be fair on Tyler, I've actually grown to quite like the character albeit despite and not because of his tiresome clothes-free antics. But with Aaron, things get worse, as he's a stripper and seems to have little depth beyond this. His arrival was, incidentally, heralded by the single most awful and hilarious line in Neighbours history when Brennan and Tyler looked at each other in the Waterhole and Brennan exclaimed: "It's our brother, Aaron!" (from now on, every time we discuss a visit home my other half has pledged to ask, "Are you going to visit your sister, Katie, today?") We have to ask, where is this going to end? Neighbours has always had a history of having mainly non-ugly people on the Street, but it's great actors that deliver the really memorable storylines, so hiring for looks all the time is not leading the show in a great direction. Will we reach a time when the whole cast are former-models? Do the show's casting team have so little faith in the storylines that they are trawling modelling agencies rather than searching for really good acting talent to bring the plots to life?

But I'm more concerned about how far we have regressed in terms of what the show is telling us about how everyone has to look. So often these days, it's interesting to imagine the genders reversed in a storyline and see how much less appropriate it makes it seem then. Aaron's opening storyline, where he cavorted around on a stage in a tired old Full Monty routine while the Street's women whooped and ogled him, would have seemed about three times as unacceptable if it was a young girl up there, getting naked while everyone jeered. Because we've moved past that sort of thing haven't we? Well, actually we haven't, because, as if to pre-empt such criticisms, Tyler has found a partner for his various activities in Paige, played by Olympia Valance, one of Neighbours' more lucrative recent acting-finds. Here is an actress who has shone in a range of demanding plotlines. And, interestingly, perhaps because we were so focused on the way the show's producers were treating the men, we barely noticed that, actually, Paige spends most episodes in her bikini too. I have to single out the shameless 'car washing scheme' storyline here, where Tyler and Paige both raised money to pay off local villain Dennis Domato by charging people to watch them chucking soapy sponges at each other in their undies. Somehow it seems worse with Paige, because Olypia Valance can actually act - it makes you doubly sure that the actress will be eyeing up America if she isn't treated with a bit more respect.

And so I reach my point. I'm not a prude - honestly I'm not - I like to look at pretty people as much as the next person. And Neighbours has always been this way, to a certain extent. No-one tunes in because they want escapism from their everyday lives by watching miserable, unattractive people doing dull things. But perhaps the mix of characters being cast could be divided by looking for interesting character actors with a few beautiful people thrown in, rather than making every new arrival an excuse to make us viewers feel inadequate. Neighbours rival Home & Away is at least a worse offender - I was watching that lately and EVERYONE in it looks like a model. On the same day I had looked out my train window at some ordinary people walking by and noted that there was a positive chasm between how regular folk actually look, and the parade of perfectly complexioned, expertly toned lovelies in our soaps. It's no wonder everyone these days feels bad about themselves.

And how about less contrivance in the storylines? Clever plotlines should not make you feel as if you are being lead to a certain place you can see coming. All too often lately storylines have seemed entirely like an excuse for the producers, having successfully hired their latest gorgeous model, to get their clothes off. It's a waste of time because you know exactly where the story is going, so why bother wanting to watch it? It's tedious, especially when the characters have already been roaming about topless for the last month. And that's another point - Neighbours can only show so much, so we've pretty much seen everything already with Tyler and even with Aaron (by his second episode in fact). So all they can do now, is show us the same again. The bottom line is, who are the most interesting and lovable characters in the series currently? That would depend of preference but personally I'd rank my favourites as Naomi, Susan, Toadie, Josh, Paige and Toadie. All great looking people for sure, but the emphasis is on their characters more than just their looks in most of those examples - perhaps Naomi is the best example. I'm sure many viewers "enjoy" watching her, but not just because she's an attractive women, because she's accident-prone, kind, scatty and a slave to her mistakes! In other words, a real person who happens to be good looking more than just a model with a barely defined character grafted on as a reason for her to be there.

Not all hope is lost. At least Aaron is gay, something of a surprise as historically good looking men have been cast with an eye for keeping the ladies happy. Is this Neighbours addressing a different sector of its viewing audience? Or do they have aspirations to explore some interesting character opportunities? Sadly, it's probably just to give Nate someone to spar with, but it's a start (we still need a really good coming-out storyline in the show don't we? The slightly insecure Jayden would be a good candidate). Yet history has shown us that people hired because they are models (or competition winners) usually end up being phased out after a few months, because the depth to the characters just isn't there. Neighbours has always had gorgeous looking people in it - and long may that continue - but it's important that they are well-developed, interesting characters as well... or, scantily dressed or not, viewers will quickly lose interest.