The Insiders Guide to Happiness was lauded as one the freshest Kiwi drama series in years. Effervescent performances, grungy Wellington settings stylishly photographed, and great Kiwi music, all helped it become popular, particularly with a young audience grateful to see themselves authentically portrayed.
Subsequently this sequel/prequel — The Insiders Guide To Love — was eagerly anticipated. A second season of any drama series, particularly a drama aimed at a niche demographic, is all too rare in New Zealand television, and there was pressure to repeat the success of Happiness. Particularly as Peter Cox, the creator of the original series' concept, was no longer involved in the development and storylining (he wrote a couple of episodes, but didn't help create them).
A continuing thread was director Brendan Donovan, for whom Happiness had been his first foray into directing television drama. "I established the look for the shows and shot the most episodes in both series," said Donovan. "Visually, the key difference between The Insiders Guide to Happiness and The Insiders Guide to Love was that we introduced the first primary colour we had ever used — red — into the second series. We worked hard before that to keep all the costumes and sets in muted tones. But because red was the colour of love I felt it was a good evolution for the show to bring it in. Also we were using a ladybug as a motif, which was red, and so we wanted to go with that."
Will Hall plays the only character to remain from the first series: James. He is yet to become the enlightened bogan of Happiness, possessed by a Buddhist monk. Instead he's a naïve lad who has just left home (the farm). "Yip, that was definitely quite weird" admits Hall. "When I first read these scripts I could easily recognise the Insiders Guide world on paper, but it took me a while to get my head around all the new characters and situations."
Other characters include a convicted car thief (Ryan O'Kane) and his thrill-seeking girlfriend (Kate Elliott). Elliott describes her character of Nicole as "highly impulsive, someone who lives for the moment and is always seeking new experiences. So she gets to have lots of fun and push conventional boundaries all the time."
Marty (Louis Sutherland) is juggling two unsuspecting wives (Yvette Reid and Serena Cotton). "Hey, I've just got a lot of love to give!" laughs Sutherland. "You could easily write Marty off as the bad guy whereas he's simply trying to please too many people. He's got two great women whom he loves for different reasons: Rachel's so damn gutsy and admirable and Maxine's softer and more accepting. So Marty gets all the affirmation he needs from them both without thinking through the consequences and how devastated they feel when they find out.."
Talented baker Luc (Gareth Reeves) has an unrequited love for his bakery assistant, Rachel (Cotton) and a mysterious, supernatural relationship with his unborn twin. This story line involved lots of physical challenges for Reeves. To shoot the falling sequence in Episode One Reeves had to spend twelve hours in a harness being dropped through the air.
The Insiders Guide to Love is set (as was Happiness), in the hilly and cinematic world of Wellington. The score is filled with fantastic New Zealand music (The Phoenix Foundation, Goldenhorse, The Clean). Throughout the series the characters wrestle with what it means to love. And with episode titles like ‘Fallen in Love Lately?', ‘Is Love An Illusion?' and ‘Would You Love Me If I Was Different?' there's plenty of angst to wrestle with.
The show won several accolades at the 2006 Qantas NZ Television Awards, including, Best Drama, Best Actress (Kate Elliott) and Best Actor (Ryan O'Kane). Simon Baumfield won for his camerawork, Brendan Donovan for direction and David Brechin-Smith took home Best Script. The series scooped up even more prizes at the Screen Directors' Guild Awards. Elliott and Baumfield were honoured again, as well as actor Gareth Reeves, director Nathan Price, composer David Long and designer Nic Smillie.
"Love rated far better than Happiness", adds Donovan. "It screened straight after Desperate Housewives, which was popular, and it already had an established audience from the people who enjoyed Happiness."
However a third series was not given the go ahead. With love and happiness knocked off, so ended the series' chance to explore more of the big questions. "There were far less episodes in Love [seven episodes to Happiness' thirteen] and this had a impact on the depth and complexity of the stories we were able to tell" says Donovan. "I'm not sure why a third series wasn't funded. I would love to do a third series and always will. It's a programme that is dear to my heart."
And so ended a fresh, smart and ambitious series dear to the hearts of Insiders' many fans.
- Rachel Davies' work as a director includes award-winning short film Sweetness, arts show The Gravy and the music video for Goldenhorse hit Maybe Tomorrow. She also wrote immersive smartphone play The Woman Who Forgot.