Cagney and Lacey — Killer TV No 15

cagneylacey8CBS, 1982-86

‘You feel like a little girl. What I see is a woman of great courage.’ – Mary Beth Lacey

Tyne Daly, Sharon Gless, Al Waxman, John Karlen

Identikit: Two women show their strength and vulnerabilities dealing with their private lives and careers as New York detectives.


The TV landscape is awash with formulaic police procedurals. Cagney and Lacey was one that lifted the genre above the norm, for the first time depicting women as buddies in a tough job. Christine Cagney was the career woman, Mary Beth Lacey was the working mother, and here was a drama that cut away a lot of guff usually seen in hero cop shows. Cagney and Lacey did rough police jobs in brutal New York to make a living, usually close and mutually supportive but occasionally dishing out home truths to each other, often in the privacy of the Ladies. The weekly stories had the usual chases and shootouts, along with the odd corny routine for light relief, but what made it distinctive was the human side of the characters – Mary Beth’s breast cancer, her pregnancy; Chris getting shot, being raped, her failed relationships and dread of ending up alone. It also never shied away from the bleak side of policing, such as Chris’s occasional lapses into booze dependancy (like her cop dad before her). The cases they dealt with exposed the underbelly of grimy Gotham – abandoned children, victims of the pornography industry, sexual abuse – some based on true events. And real issues were confronted – abortion, nuclear weapons (Mary Beth was arrested on an anti-nuke demo), date rape. But in addition to its strength as a crime drama, its depiction of working women in a male environment certainly spoke to women holding down jobs in the real world. It was Christine’s boyfriends and frustrations, and Mary Beth’s family crises that always chimed with fans, rather than unravelling the whodunit. Despite early misgivings by some execs in CBS that the characters would be perceived as ‘dykes’, or at least as too unfeminine, executive producer Barney Rozenzweig steered the show through two cancellations. Sharon Gless was brought in to replace Meg Foster as Cagney after the first series to reduce the character’s aggression a bit. When the show was cancelled at the end of the 82-83 season, it was brought back by popular demand when viewers (many of whom were women) wrote to CBS to complain. It became one of the most cherished series of the 1980s, with Daly and Gless going on to share best actress Emmys for six years on the trot – a unique achievement.

Classic episode: Turn, Turn, Turn, the two-part conclusion to season 6. Christine’s dad dies after a drunken fall, and Mary Beth confronts her about her own disastrous boozing, eventually dragging her to AA. ‘My name is Christine, and I’m an alcoholic.’

Watercooler fact: Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday actually developed an outline for the series in 1974, but it was turned down by all the networks, none of whom thought a series about women cops would succeed.

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