Everything you need to know about Street Legal

A primer on the legal-themed soap opera that ran on CBC-TV the first time around.

Long-running legal drama set to be rebooted for, it's time to read up on the original

The Street Legal cast grew over the years, expanding beyond the show's initial central characters of Carrie, Chuck and Leon. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

As Street Legal gets set to return to the small screen, CBC Archives offers a brief primer on the popular show that led to the reboot.

Actors C. David Johnson, Sonja Smits and Eric Peterson, played the three central characters -- Chuck, Carrie and Leon, respectively -- when Street Legal first hit the air in 1987. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

In January of 1987, CBC-TV aired a handful of episodes of the slick, hour-long drama, revolving around three young lawyers — Carrington "Carrie" Barr, Chuck Tchobanian and Leon Robinovitch — and their small, Toronto law firm.

They were "trial lawyers who live in the turbulent war zone between the cops, the criminals and the courts," according to promotional materials issued by CBC.

"They are on the front line, practicing their legal trade in many worlds — from street crime, to murder, to boxing, to rock 'n' roll, to big business."

Daily dilemmas

The pilot, "Birds of a Feather," introduced viewers to the soapy dilemmas the Street Legal lawyers would often face.

Eric Peterson's character, Leon Robinovitch, is seen conferring with a client in the "Birds of a Feather" episode of Street Legal. (Bruce Macaulay/CBC Still Photo Collection)

Should Chuck take a high-paying job, but leave his longtime friends behind? (Spoiler alert: He doesn't.)

Should Leon take on the small-time case of a man facing a ticket for the illegal selling of pamphlets? (Another spoiler alert: He does.)

Will the team stick together, under the pressure of having to move from a swank Bay Street office to a smaller, more quirky location on Queen Street? (They do.)

Reviewers saw potential in early episodes

Critics seemed to see potential in what the show could be.

The Globe and Mail's John Haslett Cuff initially thought the show's look was its strong point.

"The series' makers use high-gloss production and dizzying — sometimes hallucinatory — camera movements and angles to give the show a visual momentum and lustre that the first few scripts lack," he wrote in an early review.

CBC reporter Beth Harrington visits the set of Street Legal. 0:22

Ted Shaw of the Windsor Star, however, said the plots were well-written and the characters were compelling.

"You end up caring for what they're doing and where they're heading, and that's all you need ask of a new TV series," he wrote a few weeks after Street Legal began.

Jim Bawden, then writing for the Toronto Star, thought the show needed a few tweaks.

"A little risk taking, a dash of the outrageous and the premise could soar," he wrote, adding that the verdict was still out on the show.

Fast pace of production

In the fall of 1987, the show returned to air for a second season — soon the show would become a regular part of the CBC-TV lineup.

And that meant a need to produce lots of new episodes. 

Actor Eric Peterson talks about getting used to working on Street Legal -- including the fact that television scripts are written very quickly. 0:20

Eric Peterson, a well-known stage actor who played Leon on Street Legal, said the fast-pace of production was something he had to get used to.

"I couldn't believe actually doing something where you hadn't seen the scripts before you committed to doing them," Peterson said in 1991, when describing the process of bringing Street Legal to air.

"At first, I thought it was very dangerous — now I'm just used to it. You don't see the scripts, you just try your best to deal with what you get."

More viewers and more characters

Over the years, the Street Legal cast would grow to include new characters, such as Olivia Novak — played by Cynthia Dale, who is reprising her role in the upcoming reboot.

Cynthia Dale's Olivia Novak character was not part of the Street Legal cast when the show started in 1987. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

Over time, the show established a large and dedicated audience. 

In particular, an episode that saw the death of Sonja Smits' character, Carrie, drew 1.6 million viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings reported at that time.

Viewers knew Smits was leaving the show before the episode aired. But she and her Street Legal colleagues were sworn to secrecy about the nature of her character's dramatic demise. (Her character was killed by a drunk-driving judge, just one episode after she was married on the show.)

Sonja Smits won't divulge any information on her character's last episode on Street Legal. 0:26

When the show wrapped up its run with a special finale in 1994, Street Legal had seen more than 120 episodes go to air. It held the record for CBC's longest-running, hour-long drama until it was eclipsed by Heartland, 20 years later.