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Family Law’s Susin Nielsen: “I know a lot about family function and dysfunction”

The old adage “write what you know,” certainly applies to Susin Nielsen’s latest creation, Family Law. She admits that she didn’t know anything about the law, but knew plenty about family. In fact, what happens to her lead character happened to Nielsen.

Debuting Friday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Global (with a special preview of the premiere episode on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT), Family Law stars Jewel Staite as Vancouver lawyer—and recovering alcoholic—Abigail “Abby” Bianchi. As a condition of her probation to return to her legal duties, Abby must work at the firm owned by her estranged father, Harry (Victor Garber), alongside her half-brother Daniel (Zach Smadu) and half-sister Lucy (Genelle Williams). Throw in Abby’s husband Frank (Luke Camilleri), mother Joanne (Lauren Holly), daughter Sofia (Eden Summer Gilmore) and son Nico (Brenden Sunderland), and there is plenty to mine for drama and laughs.

With legal dramas a popular genre, what truly sets Family Law apart is sharp writing and stunning performances by the cast, led by Staite.

We spoke to Susin Nielsen about about the road to making Family Law, which has already shot its second season.

How did Family Law come to be?
Susin Nielsen: I actually first came up with this idea about a decade ago, and brought it to SEVEN24—they’ve always been my partners with it— and we got it into development at another network, but they didn’t move forward with it. And then flash forward I guess about, five years and Jordy Randall at SEVEN24 called and he said, ‘We’ve never stopped thinking about Family Law and we see another opportunity to pitch it.’

So I went to [the] Banff [World Media Festival] and I pitched it to Susan Alexander and Rachel Nelson at Corus in 2018, and I think it was a lot of serendipity, it was right time, right place. I think I had made the idea stronger and better as well, and they put us into development and then they gave us more development, and then eventually they green-lit us.

In terms of the creative origins, when I first came up with the idea, there was a part of me that was trying to be shrewd. I’m not usually very shrewd when it comes to my writing, but it seemed like what was selling were procedurals, and I knew that for me and my sensibilities, I was probably never going to do a cop show. A hospital show just felt so out of my area of expertise. And certainly, I also really know nothing about law, but I knew a lot about family. I know a lot about family function and dysfunction, and my own family background somewhat mirrors Abby’s in that I didn’t meet my father until I was a teenager. At which point, I also met my half-brother and my half-sister.

I think that’s kind of always informed, probably, a lot of my writing. It just felt like a premise that I got really excited about. What if there was this woman who had been estranged from her father for all of these years, carried a huge chip on her shoulder, is almost disbarred because of her alcoholism and the only lawyer in town who will take her on is her dad? What I really loved about it was that I could explore family on three levels. I could explore the cases. I could explore Abby having to work with these people who she’s really just getting to know, and at the same time she’s trying to salvage her marriage and her relationship with her children.

The cast that you’ve got is incredible. Victor Garber, Jewel Staite, Zach Smadu, Genelle Williams, Lauren Holly. You must be pinching yourself every day that you got to work with these folks.
SN: Thank you for bringing all of them up. I do pinch myself. What’s interesting is that not only are they obviously exceptional actors, they’re also incredibly lovely people and Jewel really sets the tone on set for all of our actors coming in. They all hang out all the time during the season, like every single weekend they were doing things together, doing dinners, it was hilarious. They don’t have to do that, they could just say, nice to see you, see you on Monday.

What was so interesting about Jewel was that she could just elevate whatever was in a scene. She could take a comedic scene and just—with a look—make it that much funnier. And a heartfelt scene, again, just with a look, and make you tear up even more. The three siblings, they got their rhythm together so fast and the looks that passed between Abby and Daniel all the time, they all just add all sorts of layers that are obviously not there on the page.

And then Victor. I, in a million years, never ever thought we’d get Victor Garber. Like he was like my dream Harry, but I just thought, ‘Well, that’s fantasy, but you’re never going to get Victor Garber.’ And it’s just been such a pleasure working with him, he’s just a consummate professional. I think he’s had two questions for me about script. He just comes in and he delivers.

Let’s switch over to the writer’s room. In addition to you, we’ve got Corey Liu, Damon Vignale, Sarah Dodd, Ken Craw and Sonja Bennett. What’s your writing process with the team?
SN: I knew I wanted, if I could, a 100 per cent a Vancouver-based room because we have a lot of really talented writers here. Everybody in that room had a story of their own, and certainly when we were developing Season 1, there was no such thing as a worldwide pandemic yet, so we were able to do all of it in person.

We would meet at Lark Productions, which is our producer here on the ground in Vancouver. We would just meet in this big, open boardroom and start hammering out ideas. First, we would talk about character arcs for the season and I had initial documents with things that I had been thinking about and case ideas that I had had since 2011, and the writers brought their own ideas to the room. Then we just started talking about case ideas and what excited us, and how could a case relate back to the family?

What do you look for in a writer?
SN: You’re looking for a group that are going to compliment each other for sure, and different people bringing different strengths to the table. The one commonality I was looking for were people who could write believable, compelling dialogue, people who could do both drama and comedy, comedy coming out of character. I felt very blessed to get Sarah Dodd because Sarah has, frankly, a lot more experience than I do, particularly with procedural. She’s done a lot of procedural. So it was fabulous to have her there just to make sure that we were structurally sound as well. Sarah is all those other things as well, but she brought oodles of procedural experience.

Sonja Bennett is so funny and she can make it look effortless with her lightness of touch with her dialogue; her dialogue’s fabulous. And then Cory Liu … I have a real soft spot for Corey. Seeing him grow over the last two seasons has just been exceptional. He is so talented and he will rule the world one day, I am sure. It’s been such a pleasure to watch him grow into his own confidence, because I don’t think he understood just quite how talented he was.

Family Law airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Global.

Images courtesy of Corus.

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An Indigenous woman returns to her birth family in APTN’s Unsettled

There have been many, many television series using the fish out of water scenario as a key part of its storytelling. And APTN’s Unsettled does it in a very effective way.

Airing Fridays at 8 p.m. Eastern on APTN, Unsettled follows the journey of Rayna Keetch (Cheri Maracle). A victim of the Sixties Scoop—the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system—Rayna returns to her First Nation for a traditional homecoming ceremony when life throws her a curveball. Her husband, Darryl (Brandon Oakes), loses his business, car and their Toronto home. The result? A short visit turns into something more long-term for Rayna, Darryl and kids Stacia (Michaella Shannon) and Myles (Joshua Odjick).

Created, written and directed by Jennifer Podemski and Derek Diorio (Hard Rock Medical), Unsettled has been in the back of Podemski’s mind for years.

“I built this narrative around this family,” Podemski says. “Really using a lot of my own experiences and my desire to interweave and focus it with an authentic Indigenous lens.” Themes include child welfare, the aforementioned Sixties Scoop, residential schools, loss of identity and substance abuse and Podemski had a circle of advisors on-hand to make sure she got the facts correct.

A truly unique way of framing the story is through Henry (Albert Owl), Rayna’s father and the local radio DJ. Viewers listen to Henry speaking to his audience in Ojibwe, recalling the past while fuzzy, home movie-like visuals roll. It’s very well done.

“These stories are effective because they’re so rarely told,” Podemski says. “My goal was to weave these storylines, but not be an issue-driven show, be a character-driven show that weaves characters that are directly connected to these issues.”

Unsettled airs Fridays at 8 p.m. Eastern on APTN.

Images courtesy of APTN.

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Nicole Power stars in Kim’s Convenience companion piece Strays

I admit it. I’m going to miss Kim’s Convenience. Certainly the saddest part about its demise is what happened behind the scenes. I won’t go into that here—search on the site for stories about it—but perhaps the best news to come out of that bad situation was Strays.

Bowing Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on CBC, Strays follows Shannon Ross—Kim’s Convenience‘s Handy car rental manager—as she heads west to become the new executive director of the Hamilton East Animal Shelter. My initial thought surrounding Strays was that it quickly came together as Kim’s Convenience was falling apart. Not so, says star Nicole Power, who reprises Shannon on Strays and serves as consulting producer too.

“At the end of Season 3, I was approached with the opportunity to start developing an idea for a show that would be a companion piece to Kim’s Convenience,” Power says during a conference call. “It would be an expansion of the universe and explore a different side of Shannon and Shannon exploring something new.”

That “something new” is Hamilton, where she is surrounded by new people, clients and fur babies. The new humans in Shannon’s life include her cousin Nikki (Nikki Duval), animal care manager Kristian (Frank Cox-O’Connell), office manager Joy (Tina Jung), landlord Liam (Kevin Vidal) and maintenance guy Paul (Tony Nappo). Nappo, in particular, is a joy to watch on screen, his trademark gruff exterior buffed by Shannon’s cheery countenance.

When Shannon arrives at Hamilton East Animal Shelter, things are in disarray. Nikki is foisted on Shannon, building budgets have been cut and a birthday party for an elderly cat goes horribly awry. But where most would curl up in a corner, Shannon soldiers on, using her unique word choices to get her and others through trying times.

“Shannon always wants to make the best out of a situation and people-please,” Power says, with a laugh. “She is always trying to manage that everyone else is good, so what you’ll see in Strays is just an extension of Shannon’s desire to have the best of the situation be the reality.”

Strays airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Moonshine’s Sheri Elwood: “What a gift to be able to write for women in their 30s and 40s”

I became a fan of Sheri Elwood when Call Me Fitz, starring Jason Priestley, exploded onto the scene in 2010. Since then, she’s produced, executive-produced and written on U.S. shows like Lucifer and Whiskey Cavalier. Now Elwood is back north of the border with a project that’s very close to her heart.

Moonshine, debuting Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBC, tells the story of the Finley-Cullens, a group of adult half-siblings battling for control of the ancestral business, The Moonshine, a run-down summer resort in rural Nova Scotia. The cast is a who’s-who of talent, including Jennifer Finnegan as Lidia, Anastasia Phillips as Rhian, Emma Hunter as Nora, Tom Stevens as Ryan, Corrine Koslo as Bea and Peter MacNeil as Ken. All shine in the debut episode and set up the Season 1 journey to come.

We spoke to Sheri Elwood about how Moonshine came about and its killer cast.

How did Moonshine come about, and how did you end up back in Canada making it?
Sheri Elwood: I got a call a couple of years ago from a producer, Charles Bishop, and I was a fan of his and he said, ‘How would you feel about coming home to do a show?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, oh my God, that would be great.’

I had been trying to get back to Nova Scotia, for personal reasons. Also, my family is still here. He said, ‘Let me get a little more specific and said, how about a family drama?’ I said, ‘I have one.’ I actually have been noodling on this idea for a while now. He presented it to CBC and we had a show. It happened fairly quickly.

How close was the noodling to what Moonshine ended up being when it hits the air in the fall? 
SE: The noodling is almost exactly what it ended up being. There’s this funny autobiographical element to the story, but my family runs a summer resort and on the social of Nova Scotia and I come from a big blended family of half-siblings. The characters are a huge departure from what we’re really like, but, but that core idea of coming home, I stayed fairly true to that idea. This takes place in a part of Nova Scotia that hasn’t really been seen on TV all that much. It’s a little less manicured, it’s a little more dysfunctional, both geographically and emotionally.  

Anybody that’s ever been to a summer camp, or spent some time at a cottage, can relate to that setting and that relaxation that’s supposed to take place when you’re not arguing with your family about something. 
SE: We were really trying to capture that yearning of summers past, which that is that, that timeless, timeless quality of your wet towels and sand on the floor and turning on the radio and it’s the same 20 pieces of classic rock, but they somehow sound fresh every single time. We’re really trying to capture that time and a place, summers with the family and at the beach, which I think is pretty universal. 

You have a pretty large ensemble cast. Was that a bit of a challenge working with so many moving parts? 
SE: This is a very large cast, but everyone feels like they’re the star of their own show. It was really easy to write for each and every one of them, and that’s a testament to the cast as well.

It’s like Christmas every single day because they’re so fantastic. I had to cast them all via Zoom because of COVID. All the chemistry reads, everything was done by Zoom, which is terrifying. I was blown away by this treasure trove of a cast, especially the women. Holy smokes, what a gift to be able to write for women in their 30s and 40s. 

The tone of your shows is always great, and the conversations between the characters always seem so natural. Is that something you have to work at?
SE: That’s really the nicest compliment I’ve ever received about my writing. I’m so happy that it feels natural. I just really always try to write from character. I just really try to make sure that there are emotional cues to everything. 

Moonshine premieres on Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Preview: Murdoch Mysteries returns for Season 15

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The cooler weather, leaves changing colour and Halloween candy already on store shelves also marks the return of Murdoch Mysteries for an unprecedented Season 15 of 24 episodes.

Kicking off on Monday night, here’s the official synopsis from CBC for “The Things We Do For Love, Part 1,” written by showrunner/executive producer Peter Mitchell and directed by TW Peacocke:

With their lives in danger, Murdoch searches for Anna Fulford and her son in Montreal.

And, as always here are a few more tidbits from me after watching a screener. Please note that, due to Federal Election coverage on September 20, Murdoch Mysteries will be pre-empted and returns on Monday, September 27.

Murdoch is on the road
In the Season 14 finale, William was off to Montreal in search of Harry and Anna. When we catch up with him on Monday night, he has just arrived in La Belle Province and hot on their trail. Murdoch himself is being followed by a few people, one of which fans will recognize. As for William, he finds a Montreal police officer who is all too happy to help in his plight, and shares a few traits with Crabtree.

Watts is on a new case
A fire burning in a Toronto yard leads Watts to the case of a young woman whose death is blamed on her husband by her parents. This storyline is another opportunity for Murdoch Mysteries to explore more diverse characters, always a good thing.

How’s George doing?
Not well, thanks to the Ernst sisters, who are holding him captive. Kudos to Sarah Swire for playing Dorothy and Amelia so well. As for the fate of Effie, who we last saw trapped in a hollowed-out tree….? There’s a flashback to just how Effie was kidnapped that is particularly giggle-worthy.

Miss Hart makes a play
Violet Hard has been on an incredible journey since she entered the world of Murdoch Mysteries. Her marriage to Carmichael has brought out a side of her that’s only been hinted at; it evolves even more on Monday night.

A nod to Canadian sports history
Amid the ongoing Bobby Brackenreid storyline is a cool little note about Canadian history that had me heading to Google ,and confirming what year we’re in.

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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