Neighbours is back, and it’s like it never went away. After all the hype of last year’s ‘final’ episode bringing back practically everyone who’d ever made an appearance, Amazon put their hand up as partners and suddenly – well, after more than a year’s break – the long-running soap was back on our screens. Would the format change? Would the cast change? Would anything change? Going by the first episode back, the answer is ‘not really’. Which, considering the grim state of the ratings for Neighbours in Australia, poses a few more questions.
A new family arrives with a squeal of brakes, the latest to be surprised that ‘Ramsay Street’ is in fact a dead-end court. It’s a place where everybody knows everyone else, and aggressively so – at one stage Harold (Ian Smith), having heard that a newcomer has shown some interest in the street’s history, turns up on their (formerly his) doorstep clutching a giant book titled The History of Ramsay Street. Does the newcomer have mysterious reasons for his interest? Do you really need to ask?
There’s a firm feeling of ‘if it ain’t broke’ around the latest Neighbours revival; it’s definitely pitched as a continuation, not a reboot. There’s only the one all-new family – seemingly on the run from Werribee – while classic series favourites Paul Robinson (Stefan Dennis), Karl (Alan Fletcher) and Susan Kennedy (Jackie Woodburne), and of course Toadie (Ryan Moloney) remain in the spotlight. A creepy portrait of long departed series regular Mrs Mangle is highlighted not once but twice; seems the eyes follow you around the room.
The other new face is Mischa Barton, here playing an international businesswoman who arrived in Erinsbrough for a conference and decided to take some time for herself … secretly shagging Byron Stone (Xavier Molyneux), who’s on staff at the Lassiter complex hotel. Does she have mysterious reasons for sticking around? You know how this goes. Fans of those moments where an actor has to look concerned but also maybe a little sinister (dubbed the ‘did I leave the gas on?’ expression) will find much to enjoy here.
Lacking the big advantage of rival Home & Away – a beach – Neighbours has always relied on plot twists, and plenty of them, to keep viewers hooked. There are at least four main plotlines kicking off in the first episode, plus a bunch of characters (mostly the younger ones) lurking around waiting for their own stories to kick in. The main plot this episode is a big build up to a wedding that comes with – you guessed it – a shock twist: when someone says ‘it wasn’t so long ago they were getting married to other people’, they’re not kidding.
The other big surprise here is that Guy Pearce (who was one of the seemingly hundreds of alumni who returned for the finale) is sticking around, for a few episodes at least. While he’s only on Zoom so far, calling in from the UK, Jane Harris (Annie Jones) is already flying out to stay with him, and future episodes promise actual footage of him walking around looking concerned as she reveals a dark secret that will probably wrap up his storyline sooner rather than later.
Neighbours airs on 10 in the 4.30pm timeslot (repeated at 6.30pm on 10 Peach) Monday-Thursday, with episodes then moving to Prime Video a week later. Presumably Amazon is hoping there’ll be enough overseas fans (they’ll be showing it worldwide on their Freevee VOD service) to make it worth their while. Locally, 10 gets a nice lead-in to their early news, while Australia’s television industry gets an essential on-ramp for new writers, directors and actors.
But what do viewers get out of it all? Neighbours hasn’t been cutting-edge viewing for a very long time, and while it does have its strengths (breakneck plotting, likeable cast, retro charm) they don’t exactly add up to appointment viewing in 2023.
The afternoon timeslot, where it can attract a mix of soap-loving oldies there for the nostalgia and home-from-school kids enjoying the cheesy plots and attractive younger cast, probably suits it best.
For everyone else, it’s good to have it back and it’s nice to know it’s there. Just don’t expect us to tune in four nights a week.
New episodes of Neighbours air on 10 and 10 Peach Monday-Thursdays, and are available on Prime Video a week later.