STREET LEGAL

Canadian Drama

When Street Legal completed its eighth and final season, one TV journalist called it "unblushingly sentimental, unblinkingly campy, unabashedly Canadian and completely addictive." The one-hour CBC drama series about a group of Toronto lawyers stands as a landmark event in Canadian broadcasting history. After taking two years to find its niche, it became extremely popular. In its last six seasons, it regularly drew about a million viewers, the benchmark of a Canadian hit.

The series debuted in the 1986-87 season with Maryke McEwen as executive producer. It experienced a rocky start, with good story ideas but weak execution, lack of style in directing, and consequently low ratings. The theme music, however, was immediately identifiable--a distinctive, raunchy and rollicking saxophone piece by Mickey Erbe and Maribeth Solomon. At that time the show revolved around just three lawyers--Carrie Barr (played by Sonja Smits), Leon Robinovitch (Eric Peterson) and Chuck Tchobanian (C. David Johnson). Carrie and Leon were the committed, left-wing social activists and Chuck the motorcycle-riding, reckless, aggressive, 1980s lawyer.

From the third through the seventh seasons Brenda Greenberg was first senior producer, then executive producer, with Nada Harcourt taking over for the final season. As CBC's Director of Programming in 1987, Ivan Fecan hired a Canadian script doctor at CBS, Carla Singer, to work with the producer on improving the show. It was after this time that the show began to find its niche, introducing aggressive, sultry, high-heeled, risk-taking Olivia Novak (played by Cynthia Dale) to contrast the niceness of the Carrie Barr character. Olivia became the most memorable and best-known, but other characters were also added. Alana (Julie Khaner) plays a confident and compassionate judge, married to Leon, who confidently battles sexism in the workplace. Rob Diamond (Albert Schultz) handles the business affairs of the firm. In the fourth season, the first African-Canadian continuing character was introduced--crown prosecutor Dillon (Anthony Sherwood). He had a love affair with Carrie and then, with Mercedes (Alison Sealy-Smith), the no-nonsense Black Caribbean secretary, and later joined the firm. New lawyer Laura (Maria Del Mar) clashes with Olivia and romances Olivia's ex-husband/partner, Chuck. Ron Lea played a nasty crown prosecutor called Brian Maloney, an in-joke to Canadians who immediately connected him to the Conservative Prime Minister, lawyer Brian Mulroney. The enlarged ensemble cast allowed for more storylines and increased conflict.

The usual prime-time soap-opera shenanigans ensued, with ex-husbands and ex-wives reappearing, romances beginning and ending, children being born and adopted, promotions and firings, hirings and quittings, all against the backdrop of the Canadian legal system and the Toronto scene. The lawyers all wore gowns and addressed the court in Canadian legal terms, giving a different feeling from its American counterpart, L.A. Law, though the two shows were coincidentally developed and aired at the same time.

The issues dealt with are also definably Canadian as well as international. Leon fought an employment equity case for an RCMP candidate, as well as representing an African-Canadian nurse in front of the Human Rights Commission. Olivia became a producer of a Canadian movie. Chuck defended a wealthy Native cigarette smuggler on conspiracy to commit murder. Leon represented the survivors of a mine disaster and then ran for mayor of Toronto. Leon and Alana became involved with a Mexican refugee, eight months pregnant, who gets in trouble with CSIS, the Canadian intelligence agency. Human interest stories intertwined with the political issues and the characters' personal lives.


Street Legal
Photo courtesy of CBC

Street Legal represented a very important step in the Canadian television industry. Along with the CTV series E.N.G., set in a Toronto television newsroom, Street Legal established Canadian dramatic television stars. Cynthia Dale, who played vixen Olivia, has become nationally famous and has gone on to star in another series, as a Niagara Falls private eye in Taking the Falls. She has said that she gets letters from young girls who want to grow up to be just like Olivia. In one episode, when ogled and harassed by a construction worker as she passed his job site, Olivia knocked him off his sawhorse with her hefty briefcase. The scene was then inscribed into the new credit sequence.

The other cast members have also gone on to other work, but the problem of a Canadian star system remains. There are few series produced, even among all the networks, and often their stars will return to theatre or radio or, it has been noted, to auditioning again for TV parts. One reason Street Legal ended was that CBC could not afford to have two dramatic series on air at the same time and the older program was supplanted by Side Effects, a medical drama. The show wrapped up with a two-hour movie in the spring of 1994 which drew a whopping 1.6 million viewers.

-Janice Kaye

CAST

Charles Tchobanian............................ C. David Johnson
Olivia Novak.............................................. Cynthia Dale
Dillon Beck...................................... Anthony Sherwood
Alana Robinovitch...................................... Julie Khaner
Rob Diamond ..........................................Albert Schultz
Laura Crosby........................................... Maria Del Mar
Brian Maloney.................................................. Ron Lea
Leon Robinovitch...................................... Eric Peterson
Mercedes .......................................Alison Sealey-Smith
Carrington Barr........................................... Sonja Smits
Steve ....................................................Mark Saunders
Nick Del Gado ..................................David James Elliott

PRODUCERS Maryke McEwen, Brenda Greenberg, Nada Harcourt

PROGRAMMING HISTORY   126 episodes

CBC
January 1987-March 1988                   Tuesday 8:00-9:00
November 1988-March 1991                    Friday 8:00-9:00
November 1991-March 1993                  Friday 9;00-10:00
November 1993-March 1994               Tuesday 9:00-10:00

FURTHER READING

Miller, Mary Jane. "Inflecting the Formula: The First Seasons of Street Legal and L.A. Law." In, Flatery, David H. and, and Frank E. Manning, editors. The Beaver Bites Back?: American Popular Culture in Canada. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993.

 

See also Canadian Programming in English