National Column: CBC to resurrect beloved Street Legal

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by Vinay Menon

In this TV age of nostalgia and reboots, Street Legal is coming back.

A revival of the CBC drama, which earned water-cooler status in Canada between 1987 and 1994, is now in development at the CBC. Sources say there will be six new episodes, and be executive produced by veteran Bernie Zukerman (Net Worth, Conspiracy of Silence, Remedy).

If all goes according to plan, the new Street Legal will shoot this fall and air in 2019, or a quarter century after the show ended its fabled run with a two-hour finale that was so culturally momentous, it inspired viewing parties and newspaper editorials.

Though casting is ongoing, Iím told at least one of the original stars, Cynthia Dale, is signed and set to reprise her role as Olivia Novak, the sultry lawyer with the big mouth and messy personal life. Who else is aboard? Since I’m neither Kevin Donovan nor Robert Cribb, I’m afraid this is where my investigation ends.

But the real question is: are viewers hankering for more Street Legal? You can understand why the CBC might be keen to resurrect it.

From Roseanne returning to huge ratings last week to an animated Corner Gas that premiered this week on the Comedy Network, reboots are storming the dial. Facing a number of existential threats – Netflix, YouTube, PVRs, cord-cutting, audience fragmentation, the end of “appointment television” network execs are gulping Alka-Seltzer smoothies and throwing Hail Marys in the hope of landing content that can spiral through the cultural noise and get some attention.

Increasingly, this search for new ratings gold involves digging up old concepts.

If you were to share a list of recent and upcoming shows with someone who just awoke from a decades-long coma, the person might actually think he or she had just taken a short nap. Current and future redos now include The X-Files, American Idol, MacGyver, Murphy Brown, Will & Grace, Dynasty, Star Trek, Hawaii Five-O, Greatest American Hero and Miami Vice.

So it was only a matter of time until the reboot trend landed here. And in Street Legal, the CBC is betting on a pedigreed franchise that once captured the zeitgeist to do so again. When the original series bid farewell after eight seasons and 124 episodes, it was the longest running one-hour drama in Canadian television history, a record that held for two decades until it was broken in 2014 by CBCís Heartland.

Street Legal also turned its stars – including Dale, Sonja Smits, C. David Johnson, Eric Peterson, Albert Schultz, Ron Lea, Maria del Mar, Julie Khaner, Anthony Sherwood, David James Elliott – into household faces at a time when most Canadian actors could have robbed a bank with no disguise and no fear of getting identified.

It will be interesting to see how Canadians respond to a new Street Legal.

Will the reimagined project still revolve around the law firm of Barr, Robinovitch, Tchobanian &
Associates? Will it still be set in Toronto, as the saxophone-blaring original opening credits made clear with an establishing shot of the CN Tower? Which characters are coming back? Since a drunk driver killed Smitsí character, Carrie Barr, we can probably assume she is not on any storyboard right now – not unless producers plan to introduce a ghost and call this Street Legal: The Sixth Sense.

It will also be interesting to see how Street Legal responds to a new Canada.

For most of the showís original run, Brian Mulroney was prime minister. This is why Leaís character, a treacherous crown attorney, was named “Brian Malony.” Will there be a new character named “Justine Truedough,” a politically correct Justice who hectors attorneys about the need for selfies and identity politics?

Will Street Legal still rip headlines from the news? Though the show touched on social issues that seem just as relevant today – assisted suicide, environmental law, workplace harassment, gay rights, discrimination, child soldiers – it will need to recalibrate its campy tone to avoid coming across as quaint or glib.

But the biggest creative challenge may be from scenes that donít unfold inside a firm or courtroom. Street Legal, which started with earnest intent, didnít find its pace, voice and footing until it ditched the legal procedural stuff and embraced the melodrama. It didnít start attracting 1 million-plus viewers on Friday nights until it went all daytime soap on the storytelling, turning the charactersí fraught romantic and personal lives into the main selling points.

At the time, some scenes – including a passionate hook-up on an office desk – likely gave panic attacks to network censors. But by todayís standards, such scenes would not seem scandalous at all. And more crucially, they would not create buzz.

Ultimately, this is the riddle a new Street Legal must solve: how do you repurpose a drama and make it relevant 25 years later when life itself is much more dramatic? How do you create and recreate characters Canadians will care about? How do you cut through all that cultural noise?

Plans for a reboot, to bring back some familiar faces, come as the network is in a state of flux. Next week, Rick Mercer Report ends its 15-year run. On the news side, The National, which was completely retooled last year, is struggling to carve out a fresh identity. And at the top of the org chart, Catherine Tait was just named the new president and CEO of CBC.

The stakes for a Street Legal retrial with viewers are clear: this is not just about chasing down future success. It is also about not bringing shame to the past.

Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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