This groundbreaking television series about two strong, intelligent female detectives redefined the cop show.
Photo: MGM Home Entertainment
Over 30 years ago, a show namedCagney & 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.”
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