Rachel Lang has done stints in each of the many jobs that go into writing for television — including scriptwriting, story editing, storylining and creating the ideas for programmes. She has also been on the other side of the screen, both as a reviewer and journalist for longtime film industry magazine Onfilm.
Believing success results from collaboration "with good people" and bouncing ideas off one another, Lang has worked for much of her career with two main writing collaborators: Australian-born Gavin Strawhan, and Outrageous Fortune co-creator James Griffin.
Lang's first gig behind the television camera was as a script editor in the 1980s, including working on episodes of police show Shark in the Park, 1986 ensemble drama Open House and road movie Mark II.
In 1992, she started work as a storyliner on new daily serial Shortland Street. Lang spent three years on the show's "table of pain", including two as Shortland's first New Zealand story editor. She continued as an executive producer, until 2000.
Working with Gavin Strawhan, Rachel Lang created successful small town dramas Jackson's Wharf (1999-2000) and Mercy Peak (2001 - 2003). Jackson's Wharf centres around the rivalry between a local policeman (Patrick Toomey) and his city slicker brother (Australian Stephen Whittaker). Aimed at younger viewers and set in a coastal town, the one-hour drama screened for two seasons.
Lang and Strawhan followed it with Mercy Peak, a drama whose strong ensemble cast included Jeffrey Thomas, Alison Bruce and Craig Parker. The show centres on a doctor (Sara Wiseman) who moves to a small town medical practice. NZ Herald reviewer Fiona Rae praised the show's characters as "fully realized, complicated people with histories and flaws and problems and successes". A consistent ratings success, even during a third and final season that screened on Friday nights, Mercy Peak's 60 episode run places it among New Zealand's longest running drama series.
Lang and Strawhan were also the series writers for award-winning export Maddigan's Quest (2005). Created by children's writer Margaret Mahy, the ambitious fantasy series centres on a circus troupe travelling through a post-apocalyptic future.
Lang has a longtime association with South Pacific Pictures, including two years in the mid 90s as the company's Head of Development. During this period she co-created (with Strawhan) three Lawless tele-movies starring the late Kevin Smith, script edited high gloss drama Marlin Bay, and worked on James Griffin series City Life.
Lang's biggest success to date has been Outrageous Fortune, which has netted her three Qantas Awards and at least as many nominations. The idea for the show was one of six proposed to South Pacific Pictures by another longtime writing team: that of Lang and James Griffin. The idea was for "an upside down morality tale" that was comedic, rude and unmissable. Lang had spied some of that comedy potential in the Van der Velters, a white trash family she created for Mercy Peak (actor Antony Starr, who played one of the Van der Velters, would add much comedy to the new series). She had also been mulling over why more mothers weren't engaging in crime, considering the median income for New Zealand women was so low.
Asked what was done differently with Outrageous Fortune, compared to earlier TV shows and characters she has been involved with, Lang's reply was "nothing":"if there was a secret formula to success, it would be bottled; everyone would be using it; and I'd be retired."
July 2010 saw the debut of This is Not My Life, which Lang describes as "probably the hardest show I've ever worked on". Created by Gavin Strawhan and Lang with help from Jason Daniel, the programme is based on a man (Charles Mesure) who wakes up one day and does not recognise his name, his wife or his children. The "paranoid thriller" is set in a future New Zealand where information is controlled electronically, allowing the writers to investigate questions of identity, memory and illusions of freedom.
Lang has also worked with Strawhan on three seasons of popular show Nothing Trivial — based on five romantically-wounded friends who form a pub quiz team — and, with Strawhan and series regular Kate McDermott, on "North Shore fairytale" Go Girls, one of Lang's longest running series to date.
Go Girls featured a Kiwi bloke (Jay Ryan) as narrator, alongside three female friends on a quest to be either rich, married or famous in just one year. Lang argued it was intended as "an optimistic, kind show about people who liked each other, because we were sick of watching people getting murdered". Sydney Morning Herald critic Michael Idato praised the writing and humour; the concept also sold overseas, including to America. In 2013 the fifth season saw Go Girls reborn with a new crop of 20-somethings (Lang talks about the show in the fifth minute of this interview).
Lang has also had success with the offbeat Almighty Johnsons, created with James Griffin. The show centres around four Kiwi brothers with God-like powers. The Almighty Johnsons debuted in February 2011, with a third season due to begin airing in 2013.
In another life, Rachel Lang appeared on-screen as an actor: in the first New Zealand drama series to put female characters front and centre — Fiona Samuel's 1987 marching team drama The Marching Girls.
'Rachel Lang - Head Writer' (Profile). South Pacific Pictures website. Accessed 12 June 2013
'Rachel Lang - creating NZers' favourites' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 13 September 2010. Accessed 11 October 2010
Logan Carr 'Behind the Blue Rose' (Interview) - Massive, 22 February 2013, Volume 2, Issue 1
James Croot, 'New cast with same philosophy' (Interview) - The Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 30 April 2013, Page 3
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Michael Idato, 'Friday TV: The story of Playboy' (Review of Go Girls) - Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 2009
Fiona Rae, 'Powerpoint: Thank heavens for Mercy at its peak' (Review of Mercy Peak) - NZ Herald, 2 May 2002
Amanda Spratt, 'Go Wests'(Interview) - Listener, 30 December 2006