Australia’s highest-rated TV drama series Packed To The Rafters is back to claim its crown.

The Seven series, which last year averaged 1.8 million viewers, returns next week with another 22 episodes.

It’s the nation’s favourite drama, having netted Best Australian Drama at the last three Logie Awards. Two weeks ago it also took out the Audience Choice Award for Best TV Program at the inaugural AACTA Awards.

Series producer Chris Martin-Jones, who occasionally sits in the director’s chair, puts the show's success down to it being so relatable. The drama focuses on the Rafter family – a family, which, like any, faces pressures of life and love while dealing with serious social issues.

“They can see the characters in their own lives. They can see the situation the character’s in,” Martin-Jones says from his Sydney office.

He says tackling serious issues such as abortion, drug abuse and domestic violence was important and dealt with in “an honest way”.

“But at the end of the day, I think what people relate to is the heart of the show – it’s about relationships and about the strength of family.”

The series made its debut on Seven at a time – in August, 2008 – when crime shows were gaining attention from local audiences. Underbelly, which premiered earlier that year, was a major hit for Channel Nine, so it was a gamble commissioning a series such as Rafters.

“It was a bold kind of choice for the network to do something that was nothing like that,” says Martin-Jones, who directed episode one.

The first episode raked in about 1.9 million viewers and while that was a massive success, episode two surged to over 2 million – a surprising result for everyone, Martin-Jones admits.

“I think we were blessed from the outset with just a fantastic cast. They all got the show, they got the scripts and they genuinely like each other and I think that comes across in the product – it’s not always like that.”

During its three-plus years at the top of the television throne, the show continues to play overseas including in parts of Europe (such as Italy and Germany), New Zealand and South Africa.

So what now for the family drama, which was created by Bevan Lee and developed by Jo Porter and Anthony Ellis?

Neighbours alumni Brooke Satchwell and Silver Logie Award-winner Cameron Daddo join the cast in a new series that will see “a wedding, new romances and family drama”. Rebecca Gibney, Erik Thomson, Michael Caton, Angus McLaren and Hugh Sheridan all return. Sheridan will finish shooting his final scenes this month before heading to LA to try and crack the North American market.

Daddo, who will be seen in April on Nine’s Beaconsfield telemovie, plays newspaper editor Adam Goodman, while Satchwell heats things up as new Rafter Electrical employee Frankie Calasso, who causes some major sparks with Coby (IF Award-winner Ryan Corr).

Jacob Allan (Winners & Losers) plays Dave’s brother Matt Jennings and Samantha Tolj (Home and Away, Rescue Special Ops) plays new love interest Sian Parry. Other storylines revolve around Ben possibly finding love again, the outcome of a secret wedding between Carbo and Retta, and a major health scare for Ted. Julie and Dave also start to explore life for themselves outside of the family home.

“Julie tries to develop herself a little bit from just being a mother. Dave is trying to expand his electrical business as well so they’ve both got goals that they’re trying to achieve – and there’s obstacles that are put up in their way to achieve those goals as the series goes through.

“But ultimately I think it comes down to their relationship and their relationship with their children that we always come back to – we find a way to bring that into every episode.”

Martin-Jones remains tight-lipped on the serious issues in the upcoming season but says “we’re going to challenge the audience like we’ve never challenged them before”.

“I think one of the reasons why the cast and the crew and writers are very excited is we really are pushing some boundaries in this new series.

“We’re taking some risks that we probably haven’t taken before but I think they are risks worth taking and I think the audience will be really engaged."

Returning to direct Rafters are series veterans Lynn Hegarty, Pino Amenta, Kevin Carlin, Lynn-Maree Danzey, Ian Watson and Roger Hodgman. Emerging director Jet Wilkinson (Crownies, Home and Away) will also join the crew.

The new series – fully-funded by Seven and shot in Sydney’s inner-west and south – started filming in October, last year. It’s expected to be completed in May. Nine is attempting to go head-to-head with Rafters this year with their own family show: Tricky Business. The Screentime production, airing later this year, looks at the lengths people go to to get themselves out of trouble and will star Shane Bourne, Gigi Edgley and Debra Byrne.

Martin-Jones says the future for Rafters looks promising.

“As long as the public wants to see more episodes, I think everyone here is wanting to make more. It’s a very happy set and the cast is as enthusiastic and as optimistic as they were when we started – or even more so actually.

“The feedback we get from the audience is so strong and it gives it a lot of confidence going forward.”

Packed To The Rafters series five premieres on Tuesday, February 14 at 8.30pm.

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