This groundbreaking television series about two strong, intelligent female detectives redefined the cop show.
Photo: MGM Home Entertainment
Over 30 years ago, a show named Cagney & Lacey appeared on television. It was part of a golden era of television that began with Lou Grant, wended its way through Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Alien Nation, Frank’s Place, thirtysomething, and ended with L.A. Law. It was probably Cop Rock that really killed it. It was an era which gave birth to multiple, intertwining story lines. An era when TV tried to use its bully pulpit to talk about serious issues and to portray complicated, imperfect human beings in realistic situations.
Cagney & Lacey started out in 1974 as a screenplay by Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon, became a TV movie in 1981, and finally a series in 1982. It was cancelled almost instantly and then revived—one of the few shows ever to succeed in being recalled by its fans. By the end of its run, it had been written by some of the best television writers (and future novelists) around—April Smith, Robert Crais, Terry Louise Fisher, Patricia Green, Georgia Jeffries, Robert Eisele, and Peter Lefcourt. It’s a credit that I will never take off my resume, no matter how old it makes me look, because it was one of the smartest, painfully honest and best-written shows ever to be popular on television.
Following its demise in 1988 for a 16.8 rating—or perhaps because they hired me to write two episodes—there were no hour-long shows featuring female protagonists for almost ten years. That mold was finally broken by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This season we have The Closer, The Shark, and The Women’s Murder Club—all featuring women protagonists who stand alone, no questions asked. Their way was paved by the partnership of Christine Cagney, a single, somewhat obsessed career woman and Lacey, a mother and wife who needed to work. Both of them happened to be great cops.
I sat down with Georgia Jeffries, the executive story editor and a producer of Cagney & Lacey in its Emmy years (her credits also include China Beach and Sisters), to explore the show. Georgia was hired in 1984 to write a freelance episode, based on a pitch and a screenplay she’d written about a female marine. After her second episode, she was invited to join the staff to give Cagney’s character more depth and edge. Because she was the only staff writer with young children, she often ended up writing “mom” speeches for Lacey as well. Three years later, she wrote the episode where Cagney bottoms out as an alcoholic—a possibility she’d seen in the character from the start.
“April Smith, who shaped the series in its earliest days, brought a novelist’s attitude to layered character development,” remembers Jeffries. “Character is action. Understanding the internal conflicts within the character, wrestling with her most deep-seated needs and desires…these are the essential seeds of drama.” When Jeffries read the backstory of hard-drinking Cagney’s bond with her charming Irish drunk of a father, she saw a story line and began “stringing the pearls”—laying in story beats—so that Christine would someday have to face her demons. That episode (“Turn, Turn, Turn”) garnered Sharon Gless her second Emmy and Jeffries a Writers Guild award.
In the beginning, however, the main point of the series was that these were women making it in a man’s profession and they were good at what they did. Period. In those years, that was the only issue that needed to be explored.
“The producers didn’t want to do ‘Technicolor cops,’” remembers Jeffries. “There was an emphasis on being absolutely accurate.” As a journalist, Jeffries had gone on a ride-along with a Rampart LAPD sergeant and was nearly caught in a gunfight. The screenwriter’s night on patrol transformed her attitude toward the job that cops have to do and became the basis for her first episode (“An Unusual Occurrence”). “That young officer was also the father of three children who risked his own safety to protect, serve, and put bread on his family’s table. And, oh, yes, he had to make split-second, gut-level life-and-death decisions without warning. You bet that opened my eyes and won my respect.”
Something visceral and true creeps in when you write about something you’ve actually done. My first episode (“Land of the Free”) was based on my experience providing shelter for a Salvadoran activist. The fear she felt was not an intellectual exercise for me. Unlike television shows today, in which teams of writer-researchers produce reams of research and outline the stories which the Aaron Sorkins and Shonda Rhimes turn into teleplays, the writers of Cagney & Lacey were supposed to bring their own research to the table.
Like Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, Cagney & Lacey’s crime stories were often driven by issues. But no one was interested in a unified liberal mind-set. Jeffries calls it “progressive humanism.” Cagney leaned right—she was all about law and order; Lacey leaned left, a blue-collar liberal. When it came to personal issues, they often reversed their positions. Cagney took on workplace discrimination and date rape. Lacey tended to be more subservient to authority; she could not afford to lose her job. It was very common to process the issues through their disagreement. Jeffries says, “One of the goals of the series was [to show] the complexities of each individual behind the badge.”
The women were also partners. They could disagree intellectually and still watch each other’s back. Gloria Steinem wrote that Cagney and Lacey’s partnership “honors women’s friendships and represents a radical departure from the myth that women can’t get along…[They] are work buddies in a way that only male characters have been in the past.” Julie D’Acci, a researcher in women’s roles in the media, wrote about the show, “The negotiation of meanings of women, woman, and femininity took place among a variety of vested interests and with considerable conflict.”
Translated, that means the network was so nervous about the homosexual overtones of the partnership that the cancelled series was only brought back on the condition that the tougher Meg Foster be replaced. She had once played a homosexual character in a TV movie. An unnamed CBS programmer said that the characters were “too harshly women’s lib…. We perceived them as dykes.” Enter the unambiguously heterosexual and unabashedly pretty Sharon Gless.
Had Cagney & Lacey been preachy, it never would have lasted. The issues were always played out in the context of character and the workplace—they were cops, they were women, and they worked in a squad room with their fellow officers. There was the moment when Sgt. Samuels coaxed Lacey to take time off before her cancer operation. She threw a tantrum in the squad room, pulled off her jacket, and poked her left breast. “I have cancer. I have breast cancer... It’s this one here, the left one. Does that satisfy everybody’s curiosity? I have to have an operation, but I do not want people treating me like some kinda freak! I’d appreciate it if everybody here would please...forget about it.”
Cagney succeeded by being as tough as a man. One of my favorite lines I wrote for her was a throwaway as she inspects the dead body of a Hispanic gang member, “I love it when they kill each other.” According to Jeffries, “she was defined by her ambition and by her own sense of righteous justification for any choice she made.”
Jeffries enjoyed the freedom of writing Cagney: “Viewers loved her for saying out loud some of the things they thought and wanted to say themselves but couldn’t. Cagney wasn’t worried about being politically correct. Lacey, on the other hand, did the balancing act. She cared deeply about others’ suffering yet had to be tough to do a decent job. It was always clear to her that she had to keep bringing in that paycheck.”
By its fourth season Cagney & Lacey was no longer a show that neatly resolved crimes in an hour. The B stories were as important as the A stories and the show developed a cumulative narrative like good mystery novels do.
However, this novel was written by a contentious family of people. The set was not a peaceful one. (The good shows in Hollywood rarely are.) The actresses, the producers, and the writers all had strong opinions about everything. Sharon Gless gleefully told People magazine, “Barbara Corday and her co-writer Barbara Avedon may have created Christine Cagney, but she’s mine now.” Tyne Daly was furious when the writers gave Lacey breast cancer. “I said to the writers, ‘**** it, guys, what’s the matter, you don’t like me?’ …Poor old Mary Beth’s had a hard goddamn year…(but) I realized that as long as there are women being led astray by the medical establishment, women getting hacked up into pieces, it’s important that I tell the story.”
It’s something for novelists to remember when writing screenplays. Something you can get away with in a book because it’s on the page, an actor has to actually do—sometimes in front of millions of people. They get very protective of “your” character. Two friends of mine wrote an episode which featured drug testing. They expected a fight to break out because they’d written a scene where Lacey has to pee with the door open for a drug inspector. At that point, things were not going smoothly between the writing staff and Ms. Daly. But nothing happened. For weeks they waited on pins and needles, but no complaints came from the star’s honey wagon. Then, on the day of the shoot, with everyone in makeup and the cameras about to roll—Tyne Daly (on behalf of Mary Beth Lacey) refused to do it. It was undignified. In the situation—with hundreds of dollars going down the drain for every minute the camera wasn’t rolling—the producers quickly agreed and the door was closed. I think it’s safe to say that Tyne Daly taught me something about picking your battles that day.
But back to the bully pulpit. Television is our national camp fire. It is here where we air issues through our avatars—be it Archie Bunker, Andy Sipowicz, Ugly Betty, or Jack McCoy. It is a place to test-drive new ideas and shine the light on obscure issues. When my episode about the underground railroad for Salvadoran refugees aired, I suspect half of the 16 million viewers that night heard about it for the first time, and they heard about it from two people they trusted, Christine and Mary Beth. Later I was embarrassed when my Salvadoran babysitter’s husband insisted on shaking my hand after seeing it. Then I realized what had impressed him: He had seen himself on television. It’s a validation middle-class white people do not have a clue about. Jeffries sums it up this way: “Any time we can give silenced voices a platform we’ve done something of worth in the world.”
In August of 1990, America began what appears to be a generation-long war in the Middle East. In tough times, people want to watch shows about nothing, like Seinfeld, or fantasies like Grey’s Anatomy. They want their police work cut, dried, and successful. On Law & Order the cops have no personal lives, and on CSI the science always works. Gritty reality has retreated to cable. Most of the issues we wrote about are still with us. I suspect many of them will be with us in 2080. But I miss the voice of Cagney & Lacey, which was humorous, healthy, and hopeful that we could do the right thing—and contentious when it didn’t happen. It spoke to my life; it spoke of life, and did it through a great pair of cops.
D’Acci, Julie. Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney & Lacey. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Quotes from “Who Said It’s Fair” by Patricia Green for Cagney & Lacey, 1985.
Quotes by Tyne Daly from People magazine, Feb 11, 1985.
Quotes by Sharon Gless from New York Times Magazine, September 22, 1985.
Sharon Elizabeth Doyle wrote several scripts for Cagney & Lacey and has since written over 20 episodes for such shows as 21 Jump Street and Reasonable Doubts. She is the author of nine TV movies including Stolen Babies, Sins of the Mind, and When Danger Follows You Home, which was based on a character created by Sara Paretsky. Her most recent credit was as the writer-producer for the late-lamented Nero Wolfe on A&E. Doyle now teaches screenwriting and acting for screenwriters at USC and UCLA and is completing her first novel.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #103.