Laying down the Law
A disgraced lawyer gets a second chance by working for her estranged father in Canadian legal drama Family Law. DQ speaks to showrunner Susin Nielsen about her personal connection to the series and the need for feel-good television.
Canadian legal drama Family Law was in production for just two weeks before it was forced to shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic in March this year. Though she admits it was “pretty devastating,” showrunner Susin Nielsen can now look back on the positive side of the hiatus as the show looks to wrap its filming schedule in mid-October.
“The entire world was shutting down so there was a sense of, ‘We’re all in this together.’ And interestingly, when we came back, everybody was obviously very hungry to get back to work,” Nielsen tells DQ. “It was really strange on the very first day back, but the bonus of getting those two weeks was that it gave us a chance to get to know each other and bond with the crew and the cast, and we were really starting to feel like a family. Everything just fell back into place remarkably well – except, of course, we were all wearing masks, hand-sanitising and working under a lot of new protocols.”
The family spirit and cohesiveness of the production team is reversed in the 10-part story, which follows a group of flawed family members who reluctantly work together at their father’s law firm in downtown Vancouver.
Lawyer and recovering alcoholic Abigail ‘Abby’ Bianchi is struggling to put her career and family back together after hitting rock bottom. As a condition of her probation, Abby is forced to work at her estranged father’s family law firm while forging new relationships with the half-brother and half-sister she’d previously never met.
Jewel Staite (Firefly) stars as Abby alongside Victor Garber as her father Harry, Zach Smadu as her half-brother Daniel and Genelle Williams as her half-sister Lucy. Commissioned by Corus Entertainment-owned Global, the series is produced by Seven24 Films (Heartland) and Lark Productions (Motive), with Entertainment One (eOne) handling international distribution.
“We don’t have to dig too deeply to see how I came to the story, because if we look at my own family background, my poor dad left my mum for another woman,” reveals Nielsen, who is also an award-winning author. “I didn’t meet my dad until I was a teenager. And when I met him, I also met my half-brother and half-sister. That background was just interesting fodder, I suppose. That was the inception of the idea, with this daughter who has long believed her father is responsible for all of her woes. She’s got a chip on her shoulder. She’s a personal injury lawyer. She’s an alcoholic. And as the show opens, she’s been kicked out of the family home because of her drinking.
“She does a spectacularly terrible thing in court and is suspended for three months, and almost disbarred. But the only way she can continue to practise law is by working under a senior lawyer in town – and the only lawyer who will take her on is her estranged father.”
Nielsen admits she never thought she would write a procedural drama, but the show balances the typical case-of-the-week format with an equal helping of serialised family stories that run through the season.
“I like a blend of comedy and drama usually,” she says. “But I loved the idea of this woman who suddenly happened to work with her estranged father and siblings, who she never knew growing up. While they are helping other families in crisis, she’s also trying to win back her husband and two children who feel incredibly burned by her. The tagline, if we were allowed to use it, would be ‘one fucked-up family helping other fucked-up families.’
“Traditionally here in Canada, we’re used to getting the note that, ‘No, you have got to emphasise the procedural’ and ‘high stakes, high stakes, high stakes.’ What I really have loved about this process is that our partners at Corus and eOne have been really on board with giving at least equal weight to the family stories. I feel like we’ve been able to toy a little bit with perhaps the slightly more traditional model.”
Writing is “always challenging,” Nielsen says, not least when your story is modelled on your own family. But what she found interesting was that her team of writers and the show’s executives also brought stories of their own dysfunctional families to the table.
“We all bring a lot of our own experiences and when we’re talking, it can be about a law story that none of us have had any direct experience with. But we find those connections with the personal stories,” she says. “We tend to bring things from our own lives. Frankly, be careful what you tell a writer because we’re also saying, ‘Oh, and you know what? This friend of mine told me about their family.’ So we’re always bringing stuff like that to the table.”
In particular, Nielsen says Abby shares some of her own personality traits. “She’s fairly judgemental, she’s quick with the barb, she’s sometimes a bit juvenile. These are all qualities I possess,” she continues. “And other characters, I was really grateful to have the hive mind in the story department. Daniel was one I felt I never got fully formed on my own. That’s the beauty of television, it’s so collaborative. You surround yourself with people who are as good as or better than you and you get better results.”
Taking her comedy inspiration from writer David Sedaris, Nielsen looks to start scenes on a lighter note before ending “with something that punches you in the gut,” or flipping that same structure, so viewers are always kept on their toes and unsure of where the story will go next. “The humour does come from the characters, and Jewel, who plays Abby, is unbelievable. She’s taken our work and just elevated it. In a look, suddenly she can make you laugh.”
It’s the “unique” humour that Nielsen thinks will help the legal drama stand out, while noting that the series is also “perfect” for the uncertain times currently facing people around the world.
“Some shows I absolutely love watching and, honestly, some shows I just can’t even watch these days,” says. “I’m a Canadian and [author] Margaret Atwood is one of my all-time heroines. I love [Atwood’s] The Handmaid’s Tale. I love The Testaments. I love everything she’s ever written. But I finally had to stop watching [Hulu’s adaptation of] The Handmaid’s Tale because it didn’t feel dystopian anymore. It felt like, ‘OK, this could actually happen in Trump’s America.’ It felt like I was starting to watch a documentary.
“Even before Covid happened, it felt like a challenging time,” Nielsen continues, “and this is absolutely a feel-good show. Our characters are very real, they’re genuinely flawed. But every episode does end on a note of hope. People will absolutely recognise the drama that happens within families. There’s that saying – ‘There are always three sides to every story: his side, her side and the truth.’
“We certainly get that week after week. People are going to recognise their own families sometimes in some of these stories. But, at the end of the day, it’s a show that leaves you able to go to bed feeling good at night.”