Another day, another new legal drama.
It’s an interesting twist that CBC TV debuts two legal dramas within days of each other, but before you assume it’s a poverty-of-imagination issue, the rebooted Street Legal and the new Diggstown (Wednesday CBC, 8 p.m. and on CBC Gem) are both connected and very different.
They are connected in that C. David Johnson is in Diggstown and was in the original Street Legal. Mind you, what unfolds in the Diggstown is a far cry from the big, broad bold strokes of the new version of Street Legal.
What is important about Diggstown is that it is the first Canadian prime-time drama to be anchored by a black Canadian woman. Also that it is set emphatically and almost lovingly in Halifax.
Central character Marcie Diggs (Vinessa Antoine) is a corporate lawyer who changes her life and career after an aunt takes her own life because of a legal issue. Marcie gives up corporate law to work in a legal-aid clinic in Halifax and deal with the day-to-day banalities of offering support to people with messy lives, little money and a bunch of problems. It is highly unusual for a mainstream TV drama to focus on the small-scale stuff of the lower courts and the problems of working people. Diggstown does it well and without apology.
The glamour aspect is found in Marcie herself. She surfs and a lot of attention is given to her on the water, this strong woman displaying her strength and drive. Meanwhile, what happens in court and in the office tends to be unglamorous and rather ordinary but, of course, the legal issues matter a great deal to the often downtrodden clients.
As such, the series (created by former lawyer Floyd Kane) is a real curiosity. The viewer is meant to care about a very ordinary dad’s DUI charges or about a woman who faces drugs charges. On the evidence of the first episode, it works. Because such down-to-earth characters are rare in legal dramas, the tensions and conflicts don’t feel shopworn and hackneyed. Keeping up the compelling quality every week is another matter, though.
The same down-to-earth atmosphere pervades the legal-aid office where Marcie works. The boss is Colleen, played by Newfoundland-born actress Natasha Henstridge, who looks nothing like the characters she typically plays. Johnson has little do in the opening episode where more attention is paid to the young lawyer Pam (Stacey Farber). The tension between Pam and Marcie is palpable (Pam resents the newcomer and is suspicious of her motives) and there is one flash of rage when Marcie tells the younger woman, “I’d have to live three lifetimes to have your privilege.”
The legal-aid office is actually based in Dartmouth and an awful lot of time is spent on the ferry between Halifax and Dartmouth. It is visually striking to see Halifax and the surrounding area portrayed so lovingly and with emphasis. The fact that it becomes striking tells you how few Canadian dramas capture and celebrate the texture of their setting.
There’s nothing deep about Diggstown as TV drama, legal or otherwise. There’s a tad too much priority given to scenes of Marcie thinking significant thoughts or having an emotional crisis while driving her car. And a twist in one of the storylines in the debut episode is telegraphed way too blatantly in advance. For all that, Diggstown has charm, which is something the new Street Legal lacks. There’s no glitz, but charm can carry a series a long way toward success.
By the way, the CBC follows Diggstown with Ordeal by Innocence (Wednesday, CBC, 9 p.m.) which wasn’t made available for review. It’s a three-part BBC adaptation of the 1958 Agatha Christie novel and stars Bill Nighy, Alice Eve, Matthew Goode and Anna Chancellor. It also streamed on Amazon Prime Video in the United States last year and was praised for being a very dark, visually lurid and imaginative adaptation of the Christie novel.