Initially debuting in the spring of 1982 as a replacement series for the cancelled Lou Grant and running for a mere six episodes, Cagney and Lacey was a landmark in the history of the police action/adventure series by dint of the fact that its central buddy characters, rather than being the standard team of uninspired Starsky and Hutch clones, were female officers (Cagney a career-minded single woman, Lacey a married working mother) doing a tough and dangerous job as well - if not better - than any of their male counterparts.
Originally created in 1974, by producer Barney Rosenzweig in concert with committed feminists, Barbara Corday (who recommended to him Molly Haskell's book From Reverence to Rape) and Barbara Avedon, the proposed series (which Rosenzweig initially envisaged as a movie titled Newman & Redford) was initially rejected by all thee major US networks until finally airing on CBS in 1981 as a TV movie starring M*A*S*H regular Loretta Swit as tough, abrasive, no nonsense, Christine Cagney - and in the role which was destined to make her a household name, accomplished Broadway performer, Tyne Daly as the married, sensitive and equally dedicated, Mary Beth Lacey. The end of the pilot saw the duo promoted from uniformed officers to detective grade on the major crimes taskforce. With the movie drawing high ratings, a short run series was quickly commissioned for the following spring. However, with Swit no longer available due to the producers of MAS*H refusing to let her out of her contract, the role of Cagney was recast with Meg Foster now taking on the mantle of Lacey's beautiful, but troubled partner.
Surprisingly, the initial series episodes drew poor audience figures. An unnamed CBS executive at the time unwittingly lit the fuse to a powder keg of feminist protest via some ill-considered remarks to the US TV Guide magazine, which sought to explain the fledgling series' disappointing performance. "They were too harshly women's lib, too tough, too hard, not feminine. The American public doesn't respond to the bra burners, the fighters, the women who insist on calling manhole covers people-hole covers." And perhaps most inflammatory of all: "We" (meaning CBS) "perceived them as dykes."
Weathering the storm of protest, CBS once more reinstated the series with yet another incarnation for the Cagney character. Actress Sharon Gless brought the required softer, more feminine aspects desired by the Network to the character, and with the instant rapport between the newcomer and Tyne Daley, the Cagney and Lacey partnership which was to win both audience and critical acclaim world-wide, was finally cemented. However, before the potential of the series was to be fully realised, the show was cancelled yet again following the 1982-1983 season following poorer than expected ratings. Public outcry exploded and through a combination of a tenacious fan campaign, growing viewers for the summer reruns, and the accolade for Tyne Daly of winning an Emmy award in September 1983, CBS relented yet again.
In the spring of 1984, amidst a TV Guide headlined: 'Welcome Back Cagney and Lacey', and advertising which loudly proclaimed: 'You Want Them! You've Got Them!' New York's finest duo returned to not only flourish, but also produce some of the most intelligent, perceptive, and realistic stories ever to grace the illustrious annals of the US police drama genre. The programme never shirked heavy issues, such as Chris's alcoholism, date rape, and the death of a colleague from drug addiction. During its seven-year run Cagney and Lacey picked up a shelf full of Emmy awards including Outstanding Drama Series (1985 and 1986), Outstanding Lead Actress; Tyne Daley (1983, 1984, 1985, 1988) and Sharon Gless (1986, 1987). Rosenzweig went on to produce The Trials of Rosie O'Neill, also starring Gless, whom he later married.
Al Waxman co-starred as Cagney and Lacey's good-natured and sometimes blustery supervisor, Lt. Bert Samuels. Carl Lumbly and Martin Kove played, respectively, fellow detectives Marcus Petrie and Victor Isbecki. Sidney Clute played veteran detective Paul La Guardia. John Karlen co-starred as Mary Beth's husband, Harvey Lacey. Harvey Atkin played desk sergeant Ronald Coleman. Jason Bernard had the recurring role of Deputy Inspector Marquette during the first two seasons. When the show was brought back in March 1984, Marquette had been replaced by Dep. Inspector Knelman (Michael Fairman).
The series garnered considerable popularity internationally. In the UK it was originally shown on BBC1, where it regularly made the top 10. When the series finally came to an end it was followed by four television movies which reunited the characters Christine Cagney, now promoted to Lieutenant and working at the District Attorney's office as a special investigator, and Mary Beth Lacey, retired from the police force but soon talked into working for the D.A.'s office as well, thereby reuniting the old partnership. In January 2018, CBS ordered a pilot for a reboot of the series and cast Sarah Drew and Michelle Hurd as Cagney and Lacey, respectively. However the pilot was never made.
The heart and soul of the success of Cagney and Lacey lay in the brilliantly realised and lovingly delineated central core relationship of the two leads, and the sometimes strained, but always ultimately unbreakable bond of loyalty, trust, mutual respect and affection between the characters which permeated every aspect of the series. The result was a deeply textured and multi-layered emotional involvement on the part of the viewers, which transcended the usual boundaries of a crime series. The audience cared, and the entire production team responded to that affection magnificently. Ultimately, Cagney and Lacey wasn't just an example of a superior cop show, it was much more importantly an example of superior dramatic television at its very finest.
Published on December 12th, 2021. Written by Peter Henshuls & Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.