By Li Robbins
It’s a stunning image: A wetsuit-clad surfer riding a sea-glass green wave. You know you’re not in California anymore — the shoreline looks too stark, or maybe just too cold. And in another upending of likely preconceptions, the surfer is a Black woman. She’s Marcie Diggs (Vinessa Antoine), a corporate-turned-legal-aid lawyer and the lead character of Diggstown, which went into its second season on CBC in March. The scene, from season one, was shot at Nova Scotia’s Martinique Beach, with Diggstown showrunner Floyd Kane fully anticipating its impact.
“I love Martinique Beach; I think it’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the world,” says Kane. “But in Nova Scotia there are certain places you don’t traditionally see Black people and I really wanted to have Marcie surfing, because it points to the fact that this person is not what you typically expect.”
Not exactly The Good Wife
Actually, there’s a lot about Diggstown you might not typically expect, both from a show set on Canada’s East Coast, and from a legal procedural, particularly one created by a former entertainment lawyer who began his legal career on Bay Street: Canadian corporate law central. Kane could have created a show about the rich defending the even richer, but instead he chose to set Diggstown in what he characterizes as the “socio-economically challenged” world of legal aid clients.
“I wanted to do a show where the people are mostly poor, vulnerable people, individuals who can’t afford the high-priced lawyers, the lawyers you see on The Good Wife,” explains Kane.
This isn’t to say that Kane dislikes more conventional legal dramas; in fact he loves the genre, citing David E. Kelley as his favourite writer and The Practice as one of his favourite legal shows. But, given his own background as someone from “a poor Black community in Nova Scotia,” he wanted to tell a different story.
“I grew up seeing how life is for people in the legal system who don’t have access to resources,” says Kane, “or have limited education and don’t understand what all the legalese is referring to and can’t afford someone who can make all that foreign language clear.”
As it turns out, a deficit of resources can lead to an abundance of stories. In just three storylines from season one you see a young mother diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome battling for custody of her baby; a pregnant woman threatened with unfair eviction; and there’s more than meets the eye to the low-income father accused of drunk driving. The drama of Diggstown isn’t in flashy court goings-on, it’s in revealing how the smallest actions of the legal system can have serious ramifications on poor people’s lives. It’s also found in the personal lives of the scrappy bunch of legal aid lawyers who work at the show’s fictional Halifax Legal Aid clinic.
Sally Catto, CBC general manager of entertainment, factual and sports, remembers being immediately struck by Diggstown’s premise.
“It’s a fresh vision of Halifax, as seen through this lawyer who grew up in North Preston, the oldest Black community in Canada,” says Catto. “The fact that the show’s taken the time to explore issues of racism and poverty and gender bias through that character, that specific lens, is what makes it unique. It’s an inside look at this in a way that we don’t always see.”
That inside look is based largely on Kane’s own experiences growing up in East Preston, a small Black community outside of Dartmouth — experiences he’s shared extensively with his writers’ room. (He says, with a chuckle, that the show’s writers probably know more about his family than his best friends do.) Those experiences, combined with topical real-life issues form the basis of the show’s A stories, usually brought to the room by Kane himself. The room generates the B stories, with the show typically featuring two cases per episode, plus the “runners.”
Digging deep in the writers’ room
But crafting Diggstown goes well beyond distilling current affairs into fiction. Kane says that the writers have had to have “frank conversations about race and unconscious bias,” and screenwriter Ellen Vanstone is candid about what that’s meant for her.
“For the first time in my life, I was in the minority as a white person in a room that was predominantly people of colour,” says Vanstone. “I learned a lot, starting with how I’m not as woke as I thought. I had so many ignorant assumptions about the characters, because I was so used to seeing my own white female experience as the default.”
For Diggstown writer Priscilla White the biggest challenge has been “getting things right, portraying people’s lived experiences truthfully and respectfully.” And given that the show’s characters include people of various racial and cultural backgrounds, the challenge is far from uncomplicated.
“It helps when we can mine our personal histories and use that to enrich or inform stories,” says White. “Half the writers in the [season two] room are Black, so we’ve all dealt with racism in many of its different forms ... these are our lived experiences so we can speak to that. More often than not, those experiences mirror those from other marginalized communities.”
Of course, part of portraying people’s lives truthfully on a legal procedural means getting the law bits right. Legal details are double checked to ensure they stand up to scrutiny, although there are deliberate exceptions. The decision not to have Diggstown’s lawyers “gowned” in season two’s higher court cases, for example, is because currently there are debates in Canadian legal circles about abandoning robes altogether. Since shows can live on in digital perpetuity, Kane didn’t want to risk Diggstown being seen in the future as some kind of time capsule. (Although in the present day he fully expects to “get a lot of flak” for having the lawyers appear in court in business attire.) All that to say, Kane’s legal background on matters big and small is a huge help to the writers.
“Floyd knows how a case might unfold, what kind of judges and opposing lawyers Marcie might meet, and all the tricks she could pull or have pulled on her,” says Vanstone. She also credits the show’s “terrific consultants” with helping with everything “from nitty gritty legal points to lawyer-lady fashion, to juicy in-real-life details that you can’t make up.”
But it’s the non-law-related nitty gritty that was a factor in Kane’s decision to seek out a white Nova Scotian writer for Diggstown, feeling he needed to include a perspective on life in Nova Scotia other than his own. He found it in Lynn Coady, a Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author and a screenwriter who says she was “ashamed” when she realized that despite growing up in Nova Scotia she’d never heard of the communities of North and East Preston. But her own background meant she provided another, invaluable point of view.
“Fortunately, what I do know about is white Nova Scotians, and that’s the milieu within which Marcie has to operate professionally,” says Coady. “Floyd actually knows more about the upper echelons of white Halifax society than I do, having been a lawyer in that world. But my expertise comes into play, I think, when it comes to Marcie’s legal aid clients. I know about the province’s poor people, welfare recipients, substance abusers and petty criminals.”
Getting Diversity into the Room
Given the show’s focus, putting together the season one Diggstown writers’ room presented a specific challenge right off the bat: Finding a senior Black Canadian woman screenwriter. The few writers who fit that bill were all working at the time — on the one hand positive, but less so on the other. CBC’s Catto acknowledges the challenge Kane faced, and says that the CBC “absolutely has a role to play” in improving diversity in writers’ rooms. She points to the broadcaster’s 2019 pledge to ensure that by 2025, CBC/Radio-Canada will have at least one of the key creatives in both scripted and factual commissioned programs held by a person “from a diverse background.” Another avenue, she says, is via writer internships on TV series — but she freely acknowledges that there’s “a lot more work to do.” And there is. Kane, for his part, views one aspect of his role as a showrunner as “a means of getting in people who are new.”
Diggstown writers’ rooms for both seasons have been diverse, and so are the show’s characters. And moving into its second season, Marcie Diggs and company take on cases featuring ever-higher legal stakes, including things like vehicular manslaughter, murder and arson. Throughout, the “sweet/tough, vulnerable/stubborn, surprising, endlessly watchable Marcie Diggs,” as Vanstone describes her, is at the heart of the story, fighting the good fight.
Diggs’ relationships with family, church, boyfriends, colleagues — and the legal system itself — are, in a word, complicated. Kane, who says the character is inspired both by the women of his own extensive family and his first-hand experiences in the legal world, wanted those complexities to deepen further still in season two, citing as one example a storyline about a young Indigenous woman charged with murder.
“I wanted to do an episode where Marcie really had to confront her own blind spots or lack of knowledge [about Indigenous people],” says Kane. “It felt a bit risky, because I know people don’t like to see the lead character not necessarily knowing shit, but it’s important to show that she doesn’t understand, and that people are different, we’re [Black and Indigenous people] not a monolith.”
Season two viewers may also notice the introduction of a slightly skewed humour (a case involving a scent-sensitive judge and the actions of a ‘findom’ — aka a financial dominatrix — for example). As well, there’s a deepening of the aesthetic of the show itself, notably through the use of more close inserts. (Kane says the Michael Mann movie The Insider is one source of inspiration.) Of course, more inserts meant more time spent shooting, which in turn meant making other sacrifices in order to balance the books, all part of life as a showrunner. Kane says Diggstown has taught him a lot, noting that, “When you run a show every day, you really get a sense of what kind of a person you are.”
And while Kane feels the original show pitch is quite close to how the actual show turned out, he does worry that sometimes plot mechanics have obscured the driving force of the story, which includes “the ways in which the legal system impacts the lives of economically challenged people.” That said, he admits he’s his own harshest critic, acknowledging that it’s tough for him to even watch the show because he “knows where all the bodies are buried.” So, while he doesn’t consider Diggstown a passion project, it’s clearly a project about which he’s passionate.
Passion, of course, means every aspect of a show, including its marketing, ends up being sweated over. CBC’s season one marketing campaign for Diggstown leaned heavily on the phrase “for the first time in Canadian television, a Black woman is starring in a primetime drama.” But the claim has been disputed. Some suggest that, for example, the 2006/07 CBC crime drama Intelligence got there first with the character of Mary Spalding (Klea Scott). Kane, for the record, views Spalding as more of the antagonist than the protagonist, but more importantly he doesn’t want the essence of Diggstown to get lost in that narrative.
“Because we get a lot of U.S. television here, Canadians are used to seeing shows with Black leads,” says Kane. “But it’s a big deal in terms of our industry and where it’s progressing. The bigger point to be made, though, is that it’s the first time there’s been a show in Canada that’s really been about someone from a multi-generational Black community.”
Leaving debates over historical firsts aside, there’s no question the show has a special place in the Canadian TV landscape. Show writer White puts it this way: “These stories matter; they reflect a part of Canada that’s rarely allowed to be seen on screen, and I’m proud to have played a part in bringing these stories to light.” Fellow scribe Coady concurs. “It’s a thrill to feel like we’re making a show that’s really about something,” she says. “Something as relevant and of-the-moment as issues like class, race, and poverty.” And Vanstone calls working on Diggstown “a gift,” in no small part because Kane, she says, “is a principled human being with a vision he refuses to compromise, and yet somehow he keeps a sense of humour while wrangling the giant, unwieldy, multi-headed behemoth that is a TV series — all of that shows up on the screen.”
Ultimately, Kane’s objective is to make what’s on the screen connect with audiences in a way that goes deeper than the machinations of lawyers, judges and the courts.
“My whole thing with legal shows is that I always want you to feel something, to get emotionally wrapped up with what’s happening to the characters,” he says. “From a writing perspective the stories have to be ones where the audience feels moved at some point. That’s what’s important to me. It’s not about tears.”
That said, there may be tears, too; possibly as soon as the opening minutes of season two, with a gut-wrenching scene involving (spoiler alert) the death of a North Preston woman killed by a policeman during a high-speed chase. Or there could be tears of a different kind after watching the scene that follows: A group of young Black girls taking surfing lessons from none other than Marcie Diggs. The backstory alone is touching. After the first season of Diggstown aired, a Nova Scotia surf school started a program for those girls in real life. Come season two, they’re in the show, helping to fulfill Kane’s mission to “tell stories about multi-generational Black people who have been in this country since before Confederation.”