Court is back in session: Behind CBC’s Street Legal reboot

From Playback magazine: The cast and creators behind the pubcaster's upcoming courtroom drama weigh in on the new show's big goals.

Cynthia Dale Street LegalWhen news broke in April that CBC was remaking its long-running courtroom drama Street Legal, it made headlines across the country. The iconic series (produced in-house by CBC) – and its equally iconic jazzy theme song – aired on the pubcaster from 1987 to 1994, winning a slew of awards and regularly pulling in more than one million viewers per episode. It was also a hit with critics, picking up 10 Gemini wins over its eight seasons. Now, the pubcaster is bringing the show (6 x 60 minutes) back as part of its winter 2018 lineup.

Playback caught up with original cast member Cynthia Dale, who will reprise her role as lawyer Olivia Novak; Bernie Zukerman, president of Indian Grove Productions, which is producing the reboot; and showrunner Bruce Smith. Here, they talk about the pressure of remaking a classic, and why they’re excited to take on the challenge.

PB: How did a Street Legal reboot come about?

Cynthia Dale: I was having lunch with [CBC GM, programming] Sally Catto. We were talking about reboots and I made a flip comment like: “That, and the revival of Street Legal.” That was it. It wasn’t like we looked at each other and said: “Oh, that would be a great idea. Let’s do it!” It was just put out there. Then the stars collided and did a magical thing. It was just enough to plant a seed in the CBC brains and they came up with the idea of going further with it. They went to Bernie, and then Bernie went to Bruce. It all just snowballed from there.

Bernie Zukerman: It was incredibly fortuitous for everyone involved because soon after that lunch between Cynthia and Sally… I met with Sally. Obviously, this conversation with Cynthia had resonated in her brain. Relatively late in the lunch, Sally looked at me and said: “We’ve been thinking about the idea of rebooting Street Legal.” It took me about a millisecond [to sign on], because – what a great idea. I contacted Bruce almost immediately. We have a history together and have done a number of successful shows, and over the course of a relatively short amount of time we came up with an idea. Sally loved it, and we went into development almost immediately. It’s been a rare ride. Canadian television does not usually work at an enormously fast pace. This was exactly the opposite.

PB: Were you nervous to tackle the remake of such a beloved series?

Bruce M. Smith: Enormously. It’s like being handed a gift, and with it, a ton of responsibility and a whole bunch of expectations. I certainly felt that it was a special opportunity. Street Legal was a seminal cultural event and really a hangover from a time when we had a lot more water-cooler shows that the whole country could get together and watch. So, this is a chance to make a mark with a new show, yet attract an audience that a new show normally doesn’t have.

BZ: We were surprised by the amount of buzz the show has gotten this early in the process. A lot of time you do shows and no one ever says anything to you about them. On this one, people are curious. They’re wondering what we’re going to do. They’re excited. You forget how iconic Street Legal was at a time when the TV business was very, very different. I’ve been around long enough that I know that doesn’t happen very often. And, as Bruce was saying, that causes a little bit of trepidation. You wonder what the level of expectation from the viewers is going to be, or from critics. Are they expecting a new version of the old show? Will they accept a new version?

CD: I want to do justice to how everyone remembers Olivia, and what happened to them through those seven years – them being the audience and the characters. I want to honour what it meant to people. At the same time, I want to surprise people. I don’t want to do the same show. We did it, and it was great for the time, but I’m not interested in doing the same show. The same show wouldn’t work.

Street LegalPB: Did you connect with any of the original creators or binge-watch the old seasons before approaching the remake?

BS: The last show I did was an adaptation of a French show (19-2) and I wanted to watch it all, I wanted to respect it all, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with the people creating it. The first job was to create a new creative environment and a new show. At the same time, the original Street Legal was a training ground for a large portion of the profession. I’m constantly running across and working with people who worked on the original. So I don’t feel I’m walled off from it at all. We certainly looked at the old show and embraced some of the key things it did: the serialized character arcs, there was no taboo they wouldn’t touch just because it was taboo. Being political, being of your time, being willing to be complicated instead of relying on very simple legal stories – those are wonderful things to embrace. We just haven’t figured out what to do with the saxophone yet.

PB: Who’s the audience for this show? How are you going to appeal to Canadians who aren’t familiar with it?

BZ: We want to keep the older audience that knows and loves Street Legal, and who are very curious to see where we’ve taken the show. But we’re also obviously interested in attracting a brand-new audience. That’s why one of the main thrusts of the show is that we’ve created a new law firm with three millennial lawyers. They bring a whole new energy to Street Legal and we hope that will attract a bright new audience.

BS: We start with the central character of Olivia Novak, who is 25 years older. She’s in a new place in her life and we use the first hour of the pilot to meet a familiar character. But, by the end of the first hour we realize she’s in a new show. Everything that happened in the old show happened – it’s in the history of this show – but this is a new show. To do a Street Legal in 2018, you need to do a show about 2018. You need to be bold in new ways, not just the ways the old show was bold in the late ’80s and 1990s. You very much need to be what Street Legal was: of, if not ahead, of its time.

PB: Where do we find Olivia Novak in 2018?

CD: She’s still a lawyer. She’s still got a lot of moxie. She still cares about the law and justice, and that’s what’s going to be exciting about doing the show again. We watch a million American and British law shows. It will be fantastic to do law through the Canadian lens again.

Twenty-five years ago, we did a story on CSIS. It created a big stir. It made people think, and sometimes you can get in through entertainment to make people think and to make them aware. If we’re lucky enough to do that on this show, then I think it will be fantastic.

PB: Will any of Olivia’s colleagues be joining her in the reboot?

BS: We’re starting with a first season and investing very much in getting these characters up and running. But, once they are, there’s a wide-open world and there’s the whole history of Street Legal available to us to draw on. We’d love to see some of those characters come back. But they have to come back into a new show.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. It originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Playback.