It was amid the flurry of U.S. television show remake announcements—Roseanne and Murphy Brown specifically—that news dropped. The CBC was bringing Street Legal into the 21st century after a 25-year break. While some bemoaned the news, one name jumped out at me: Bruce M. Smith. I had high hopes. After all, Smith is the guy behind 19-2, a series I dearly loved. If anyone could reboot a series, I thought, it was him.
I was right. Yes, the original DNA—and original cast member Cynthia Dale (Eric Peterson and Anthony Sherwood will make guest appearances)—of Street Legal is there, but that’s where the similarities end. This Street Legal has morphed with the times.
When viewers tune in on Monday at 9 p.m. on CBC, they’ll catch up with Olivia Novak (Dale) and meet a new trio of lawyers in Lilly Rue (Cara Ricketts), Adam Darling (Steve Lund) and Mina Lee (Yvonne Chapman). The young upstarts beat Olivia to the punch when they take on a pharmaceutical company churning out highly addictive opioids. That storyline will fill this season’s six-episode arc, but as Smith told me, he expects this to be the jumping off point for more seasons.
How did Street Legal come to be?
Bruce M. Smith: The CBC approached Bernie [Zuckerman] and me about rebooting Street Legal with Cynthia Dale attached. That was the core concept. I met with Cynthia, and thought right away, ‘This character’s a lot more interesting at 58 than 28.’ That’s really the core of why I could see value in it. It seemed like a smart move from the CBC. The brand has value.
I was really interested in that, in taking that character and looking at her now. The same character, 25 years later, and then building a new show around that. What Street Legal was to its audience when it premiered, which was pushing the envelope or the box of Canadian TV. They were doing serialized stuff. They were doing controversial issues, and not necessarily wrapping them up with neat bows. They were doing character-driven soapy stuff in an adult format, and a law show, which was relatively new at the time. Certainly on Canadian TV. Unlike doing Murphy Brown or Roseanne, the idea was not necessarily to do the full nostalgia cash in, and I was always worried about nostalgia being a bit of a danger to the show.
It was great if the new show had its own identity, but if you were relying on it, then the why question is a very legitimate question. The experience was, this is a really new show. I tried to build it in a way that it would say right in the first two minutes, ‘Oh, OK, this isn’t quite the same Street Legal.
I noticed that Olivia never references her past. Was that a conscious decision?
BMS: That was really specific to the pilot. What I was doing was putting her in a situation where there are things right in front of her that are the most important to her. This case, then her firm, but it was by no way an, ‘Oh no, we’re going to ignore the past.’ No, she’s carrying it with her. Everything that happened in Street Legal is baggage for this character. It shows in her relationships, the cases she did. They’re not going to come up unless it’s relevant in the present. One of the things I did, Greg, which really excited me about this, was when CBC said, ‘We want to do Street Legal, six hours,’ I thought, ‘Well, OK. That really affects how I do it,’ because the old Street Legal was this Friday night sit down. Turn off your brain a little bit. Well, you can’t do that for six hours. I really embraced the idea of doing a six-hour pilot.
Six hours is really a mini-series, limited-run format. I wanted to do something really serialized. I’m going to start by doing a six-hour pilot. I’ve got six hours to earn the series coming back in the future, and to earn the new show. The pilot that you’ve seen, that’s Olivia’s show. By Hour 6, it’s everybody’s show. It’s an ensemble. There are four characters, but Olivia’s totally our way in.
I love that you’re going into this with the attitude of six episodes is just a way into more of this project.
BMS: I think that’s right, and I think if you’re being given Street Legal, and you only get one season, you failed. I have to accept that for myself as a bar. I’ve been trying to make something worth renewing from Day 1, absolutely.
How did you come up with the idea for the drug and the court case being the core of this set of episodes?
BMS: Again, I thought six hours was a really great format to talk about something as complex as opioids, and chronic pain. That’s something we can’t do justice to in a story of the week, and with this six-hour pilot idea, maybe it’s really common, but I had never heard of it before, so I sort of ran with it. That lets you approach it different ways week to week. The idea of exploring it not just through court, but through this character of Adam Darling’s mother, who is the heart of the show, that’s the idea. It’s not in court, it’s in the human toll of the cost. That’s also a lesson for how to build a law show and get emotional payoffs, as opposed to just satisfying resolutions.
It just felt like a really good, deep, complex topic, that was appropriate to what Street Legal originally promised, which was that it would take on complex issues, and not necessarily wrap them up in a week. I really felt I had stuff to say about all these, as an artist, and you’ll see, by the end of the six episodes. It’s interesting where it goes. It has something to say as a show, that’s not just opioids are dangerous and pharma companies are greedy. Those things we get.
Can you say what your future plans are for the show?
BMS: I hope to get a pickup and then go make the next season. I have a story in mind. These characters are really designed with places to go and stories to go through, so they’re keyed up to go through some things, regardless of what cases they’re working on. For me, it’s continuing those character arcs.
Street Legal airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC and streaming on CBC Gem.
Images courtesy of CBC.