Cagney and Lacey, a U.S. police procedural with pervasive melodramatic overtones is, deservedly, one of the most widely discussed programs in television history. The series aired on the CBS television network from 1982-88 and presented a set of bold dramatic combinations, blending and bending genre, character, and narrative strategies. Though rated in the list of "top 25" programs only once during those years, the show drew critical acclaim--and controversy--and established a substantial audience of fiercely loyal viewers who, on at least one occasion, helped save the program from cancellation by the network. As demonstrated by television scholar Julie D'Acci's outstanding study Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey, the history of Cagney and Lacey provides a textbook case illustrating many issues pervasive in the U.S. television industry as well as that industry's complicated relationship to social and cultural issues.
Created in its earliest version by writer-producers Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon in 1974, Cagney and Lacey was first designed as a feature film. Unable to sell the project, the women presented it to television networks as a potential series. Rebuffed again, they finally brought Cagney and Lacey to the screen as a 1981 made-for-television movie, co-produced by Barney Rosenzweig, then Corday's husband. The movie drew high ratings and led to the series, which premiered in 1982. The difficulties involved in the production history to this point indicate struggles encountered by women writers and producers in the film and television industries--especially when their work focuses on women. Those difficulties, however, were merely the beginning of continuing contests.
As put by D'Acci, "the negotiation of meanings of women, woman, and femininity took place among a variety of vested interests and with considerable conflict." Throughout the run of the series the "negotiations" continued, and the interests included the creative team for the series--producers, writers, actors, directors. They also included network executives and officials at every level, television critics, special interest groups, and the unusually involved audience that actively participated in ongoing discussions of the series' meanings and directions.
While many of these controversies took place on sets, in writer's meetings, and in board rooms, one of the earliest spilled over into public discussion in newspapers, magazines, and letters. In the made-for-television movie, the character of Christine Cagney was played by Loretta Swit, that of Mary Beth Lacey by Tyne Daly. Unavailable to take on the Cagney role in the series because of her continuing work in M*A*S*H, Swit was replaced by Meg Foster. Almost immediately discussion at CBS and in some public venues focused on potential homosexual overtones in the relationship between the two women. Foster, who had played a lesbian in an earlier television role, was cited as "masculine" and "aggressive," and after considerable argument CBS threatened to cancel the series, made Foster's removal and replacement a condition of continuing the show, and the fall 1982 season began with Sharon Gless, presumably more conventionally feminine and heterosexual, portraying Cagney.
Similar, though not so visible, conflicts and adjustments continued throughout the history of the series. Questions of appearance--dress, body weight, hair styles--were constantly under consideration and negotiation. Story material, particularly when focused on issues of vital concern to women--rape, incest, abortion, breast cancer--often proved controversial and led to continuing battles with the network standards and practices offices. Daly reported that even in the matter of sexual relations with her fictional husband, Harvey (John Karlin), differences of opinion flared into argument over how to present domestic sexual behavior.
In the spring of 1983 CBS executives had more straightforward matters to present to the producers of Cagney and Lacey--pointing to low audience ratings and canceled the program. By this time, however, the producers and the production company for the series had mounted an impressive public relations campaign and letter-writers from across the country mailed their protests to the company, the network, the producers--to anyone who would read and make use of them. The National Organization of Women took a lead role in the publicity campaigns. Newspaper critics called attention to the campaign. The series won numerous awards, Daly's Emmys for Best Actress in 1982-83 and 1983-84 among them. In the fall of 1983 CBS announced it would program seven "trial episodes" beginning in March 1984. Cagney and Lacey was back and remained on the air four more seasons.
All of these difficulties were played out as the series developed narrative strategies that took best advantage of U.S. commercial television's abilities to present serious social and personal issues in the context of genre fiction. Two factors stand out among the techniques that distinguish Cagney and Lacey. One strategy, evidenced in many of the conflicts described above, is the series' ability to blend three areas of concern into single dramatic productions. First, most episodes of Cagney and Lacey dealt with the on-going difficulties encountered by two women in a male dominant profession. This entailed far more than simply presenting gender conflicts in the workplace, though certainly there were many of those. Rather, this dramatic structure required a reconsideration of the entire generic structure of the "cop show." As the two women dealt with issues such as "violence," "guns," "male criminals," or "the streets"--all elements of police fiction--writer-producers as well as audiences were required to reflect on new resonances within the genre.
Second, each narrative usually focused on a particular crime and criminal investigation. The generic modifications were intertwined with rather conventional police matters, and the sense of strangeness caused by the gender shift was combined with the familiarity of crime drama.
Third, each story usually linked the crime drama to a social problem, the kinds of issues often explored in television drama throughout the history of the medium. Thus, the issues cited above, often, though not always definable as "women's issues," formed a third aspect of the narrative triad structuring individual episodes.
The series was at its best when these elements were "balanced," that is, when it was neither overly didactic regarding the social issue, nor utterly conventional as a police drama, nor submerged in the exploration of gender inflected genre. If, as sometimes happened, one of these aspects did "take over" the story, the result was often a very thin examination of the element.
The second major narrative strategy of the series militated against this imbalance. This was the establishment of Cagney and Lacey as a "cumulative narrative." Unlike serial dramas such as Hill Street Blues, or, in the more strictly melodramatic vein, Dallas, Cagney and Lacey did usually bring each episode to closure. Criminals were caught. Cases were solved. Sometimes, even the particular gender-related workplace issue was brought to a satisfactory solution.
But beneath these short term narrative aspects of the series, the long term narrative stakes were continually explored. More important, each of the closed episodes shed light on those ongoing matters. Thus, as viewers watched the Lacey children move from childhood into adolescence, they also saw strains appear in the Lacey marriage, and the toll that strain took on professional commitments, and the conflicts the strain caused in the interpersonal relationship of the two women, and so on. Similarly, each small development could lead to new story possibilities, new inflections of character. Elements from past episodes could be brought into play. Features of character biographies could be revealed to explain events in a particular episode, then used to develop further characteristics in future episodes.
The cumulative narrative, one of television's strongest forms, was put to near perfect use in Cagney and Lacey. Evidence of the utility of this strategy, and the ways in which its methods of story elaboration can appeal to viewers, came in the latter years of the series. Though some critics see the series as diminishing its stronger feminist tonality in this period, it is also possible to see the growing emphasis on the "personal" and "the domestic" as a fuller union of public and private.
One of the most significant developments in the series in this period was the exploration of Christine Cagney's alcoholism. In addition to their own focus on this topic, producer-writers have cited viewer letters calling attention to the fact that Cagney often turned to alcohol in times of stress. In a harrowing, two-part, award winning performance, Sharon Gless portrayed Cagney's descent into "rock bottom" alcoholic behavior. What is significant about the development is that it altered not only the series present and future, but its history as well, and simultaneously altered the "triadic" structure of social issue, personal problem, and police drama.
Cagney and Lacey left network program schedules in 1988. But it continued for some time as a staple for the Lifetime network's programming aimed at female audiences. Critical and viewer responses to the series continue to be mixed even now. Most recently the series characters have been resurrected in the form of several made-for-television movies. Older, physically changed, perhaps "wiser," these fictional characters and the narratives in which they appear continue to explore complex issues and themes, and to experiment with narrative forms.
Detective Mary Beth Lacey..........................Tyne Daly
Detective Chris Cagney (1982)...................Meg Foster
Detective Chris Cagney (1982-88)............Sharon Gless
Lieutenant Bert Samuels.......................... Al Waxman
Detective Mark Petrie............................... Carl Lumbly
Detective Victor Isbecki ...........................Martin Kove
Detective Paul La Guardia (1982-85)........ Sidney Clute
Deputy Inspector Marquette (1982-83)... Jason Benhard
Desk Sergeant Ronald Coleman.............. Harvey Atkin
Tom Basil (1986-88).................................. Barry Laws
Verna Dee Jordan (1987-88).................. Merry Clayton
Barney Rosenzweig, Barbara Corday, Barbara Avedon, Richard Rosenbloom, Peter Lefcourt, Liz Coe, Ralph Singleton, Patricia Green, P.K. Knelman, April Smith, Joseph Stern, Steve Brown, Terry Louise Fisher, Georgia Jeffries, Jonathan Estrin, Shelly List.
CBS March 1982-April 1982................. Thursday 9:00-10:00 October 1982-September 1983..... Monday 10:00-11:00 March 1984-December 1987......... Monday 10:00-11:00 January 1988-April 1988.............. Tuesday 10:00-11:00 April 1988-June 1988................... Monday 10:00-11:00 June 1988-August 1988.............. Thursday 10:00-11:00
Brower, Susan. "TV 'Trash and Treasure': Marketing Dallas and Cagney and Lacey." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), 1989.
Clark, Danae. "Cagney and Lacey: Feminist Strategies of Detection." In, Brown, Mary Ellen, editor. Television and Women's Culture: The Politics of the Popular. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1990.
D'Acci, Julie. Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Fiske, John. Television Culture. London: Methuen, 1987.
Mayerle, Judine. "Character Shaping Genre in Cagney and Lacey." Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1987.
McHenry, Susan. "The Rise and Fall--and Rise of TV's Cagney and Lacey." Ms. (New York), April 1984.
Montgomery, Kathryn C. Target Prime Time: Advocacy Groups and the Struggle over Entertainment Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Rosen, Marjorie. "Cagney and Lacey." Ms. (New York), October 1981.