Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"Cagney & Lacey": Still Relevant -- and Entertaining -- After All These Years!

Welcome to The Flaming Nose TV Blog and our entry in the Classic TV Blog Association Classic TV Detectives Blogathon!  (Please click on the link to take you to the full line-up of participating blogs and their very fun line-up of subjects).  We're taking a look back at those iconic CBS-TV police detectives Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey, two women who first came to life in October 1981 as characters in a one-off TV movie called Cagney & Lacey.

Actress Loretta Swit who was co-starring in the network's hit M*A*S*H at the time played Cagney and talented actress Tyne Daly (daughter of Medical Center star James Daly) took on the role of Mary Beth Lacey.  The characters were a study in contrasts: Chris Cagney was single and an ambitious career cop and Mary Beth was no less ambitious but was a wife and a mother along with her career as a policewoman.  The two characters were far from the first lady police officers on TV to have a series revolve around them; among others, Angie Dickinson had played the glamorous eponymous Police Woman for NBC from 1974 - 1978 and let's not forget the intentionally imperatively gorgeous women of Charlie's Angels who were enormously popular during their 1976 - 1981 run.  What made Cagney & Lacey different from the rest and from the start was the sense that these were real working women, light on titillation and heavy on verisimilitude.  Their world was complicated, their relationships multi-dimensional and their work was serious stuff.  Their status as conflicted human beings was a reflection of the times, the 1980s being a decade well into the Women's Liberation Movement but also full of people still trying on the notion of women's equality.

The TV movie worked well enough to garner a series order to come back in mid-season 1982.  Loretta Swit was already committed to M*A*S*H and couldn't return for the Cagney & Lacey series.  Cue a recast:  the unique and very busy actress Meg Foster -- she of the wolf-blue eyes -- came onboard as the 2nd Christine Cagney with Tyne Daly continuing as Mary Beth Lacey.  The series hit the air in  March 1982 for six episodes airing Monday nights at 10pm.  Opening with hard-driving theme music which morphs into a female singing the bluesy "Ain't That the Way," Cagney & Lacey was on its way.

So far, so good.  No hit out of the box but at least Cagney & Lacey had a slot and they wanted to stick to it.  CBS wasn't of the same opinion and cancelled the nascent series, citing various factors such as the characters being too tough and also hinting that perhaps Foster didn't provide enough contrast to Daly's sober Mary Beth and was coming off as a little too butch.  I don't think CBS was being bigoted in this assessment but didn't express the intangible very well; they knew that the chemistry of the leads just wasn't there.  TV shows die from lack of onscreen chemistry -- that zing that makes us want to look at these characters week after week -- and that's what the network was looking for as the missing ingredient in their recipe for a successful series.

Cue a second recast:  Cagney & Lacey producers had originally cast their eye on actress Sharon Gless to play Christine Cagney.  Gless was the last of the Universal Studio contract actresses and therefore steadily working in all of Universal's TV series -- really, lots and lots of TV, check out her credits!  -- during the 1970s. The talented charismatic actress was a blonde -- an immediate contrast to Daly's brunette -- and though it was much deeper and complicated than just that, the physical difference between the actresses could provide a jumping off point from which the onscreen chemical magic could grow.  Finally the producers could get their perfect Cagney and so after much persuasion from exec producer Barney Rosenzweig et all behind the scenes, CBS brought the series back for the 1982 - 83 season with Gless replacing Meg Foster.  Also, the more downbeat series theme song from the first batch of episodes was ditched for a decidedly more upbeat Bill Conti ditty.  Conti explains exactly what he and the producers had been looking for in this interview from the Archive of American TV; click here.

This time the chemistry was right, the characters were compelling, the supporting cast was a terrific and still somehow Cagney & Lacey wasn't catching on in the ratings.  CBS and critics were happy with the show but it hadn't quite broken through with the public.  Lackluster performance prompted CBS to once again bring the ax down on Cagney & Lacey at the end of the 1983 season.  What could the producers do to help persuade CBS to change its mind?  Producer Rosenzweig started drumming up public awareness for the show, capitalizing on the small but rabid fan following that loved the show.  He also went after important major media coverage for the series and its position as one of the rare TV shows to portray independent females doing interesting things and taking their lumps alongside the rest of humanity.  (For a great interview with Daly and Gless at the time check out this video by clicking here.) The publicity campaign which resulted in increased summer ratings plus the recognition by the TV Academy when Tyne Daly won an Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in September of 1983 worked.  CBS rescinded the cancellation and would bring Cagney & Lacey back in mid-season 1984.

For the next five years until the show's ultimate cancellation after the 1987- 1988 season, Cagney & Lacey became, if not exactly a chart-sizzling super hit like Dallas or Magnum P.I., at least a solid performer with particularly impressive Emmy credentials and a solid core of quality that turned Cagney & Lacey into a synonym for serious, entertaining, well-made TV that made a real difference.  Over the series' run from 1983 - 1988 Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless traded off taking home the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Emmy Awards -- Tyne took a total of 4 and Sharon 2  -- and the series won as Outstanding Drama in 1985 and 1986.  (Be sure to check out the full list of Cagney & Lacey's award honors by clicking here).

(For more footage of other Cagney & Lacey Emmy moments, click here, and here and here and here.)

Almost more important than its initial network run was Cagney & Lacey and its lasting impact on the very idea of women working together, enjoying each other and their work, facing life and death as it comes.  No mere TV show, it was the Cagney & Lacey phenomenon that continues to keep C & L fans engaged and enthusiastic and also makes new fans for the show as the years go by.  The duo was officially brought back in 1994 for four TV Movies known affectionately as "The Menopause Years" and even though C & L celebrated its thirty year anniversary a few years back it is still a household name for TV lovers and culture scholars who note its significance in the pop culture landscape.  (Over in Britain they are exceptionally fond of Cagney & Lacey, too: click here to see Tyne and Sharon at a Royal Gala, click here for an appearance with Graham Norton, and click here for a BFI panel celebrating the show's 30th anniversary).

How does Cagney & Lacey hold up as entertainment?  It's clearly not super gore-graphic like most TV police shows today so maybe it's too tame for today's viewers.  What it does still deliver on is passionate performances, well-constructed storylines and a sense of where we all were back then.  Is it dated?  Less so than many other shows because it was less self-conscious and very much aware that entertainment was a part of its mandate.

Where can you watch Cagney & Lacey now?  True C &L devotees should pick up the definitive DVD collection, curated by Barney Rosensweig (who eventually married Sharon Gless, btw), available at the crazy low price of under $60 through Cagney & Lacey The Official Website. click here.  Though it long ago left active syndication in the U.S. -- it aired once upon a time on the Lifetime and TNN networks -- C & L is available on Hulu right now, click here to access.

(Going back to its syndication status, Cagney & Lacey was probably never going to be a show with a huge afterlife.  I was a cable TV exec and I never would have purchased it for mass viewing purposes, which has nothing to do with it being an incredible show or not.  C & L was maybe too intense for steady five-day-a-week schedling and it was viewed as a woman's show.  Just because women loved it didn't preclude its appeal to other audience groups, but it's not the first acclaimed show to poop out in syndication.  Other 1980s hits like St. Elsewhere and Hill St. Blues also languished in the doldrums.  It usually takes something with a bit more pizzazz and a bit less social significance to survive the strip wars.)

Cagney & Lacey deserves every bit of the attention it still gets.  Seldom have we seen such great chemistry onscreen between two so very talented actresses.  When you come right down to it, the friendship and support shown between Cagney and Lacey on the show and between Tyne and Sharon over the years is what may be the most impressive thing about the legacy of Cagney & Lacey.  Camaraderie is a given between men but it's not always understood as an important quality between women, at least not back then.  Rivalry and catfights were the order of the day -- see Dallas, Dynasty and other series contemporary with C & L to witness this paradigm -- but Christine and Mary Beth changed that. Getting along while you're getting through it all is never easy, but Cagney & Lacey showed us one way to make it happen.

If you crave more information about Cagney & Lacey there are many awesome web resources to delight in:

The ladies from The View tipped their hat to Cagney & Lacey in 2007:

The Museum of Broadcast Communications has a nice one page summary of Cagney & Lacey, click here to access.

Ms. Magazine has always been a staunch support of all things Cagney & Lacey, click here.

In 2011 UK's The Guardian had this great article about the show's 30th Anniversary, click here.

In 2013 The A.V. Club had a great appreciation of the show here, in their ongoing series about TV program which have reached the magic 100 episode threshold, click here.

The Archive of American Television has a great selection of interviews with various Cagney & Lacey participants, click here for their launch page about C & L which links to all interviews.

Super fans will want to locate Julie D'Acci's scholarly 1994 book Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney & Lacey, click here for a preview of the book.

How about producer Barney Rosenzweig's own amusing 2007 tell-all about the show, Cagney & Lacey...and Me: An Inside Hollywood Story OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blonde, click here for the Amazon page.

TV.Com has a lot of info including good episode descriptions, click here.

A nice interview with Tyne Daly, Sharon Gless and Barney Rosenzweig online here at Exclusive Magazine, click here.

I would always recommend Wikipedia for concise data, click here and click here.

Of course IMDb is another must-read for historic info and cast lists, click here.

On YouTube, user surfergirlCali has an impressive collection of C & L videos and historic footage, definitely worth checking out, click here.  Wonderful stuff!

Excellent Cagney & Lacey featurette:

Another great featurette:

It's always interesting to look back at the Los Angeles Times and its excellent coverage of TV including Cagney & Lacey, click here.

Cagney & Lacey was filmed on location at the L.A. Lacy Street Production Center, click here.

For a totally charming and hilarious Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless duet about their friendship and C & L performed at a 1999 live benefit bootleg recording, you will want to check out this link by clicking here.

An incredible resource for links to Cagney & Lacey vintage material is this website written and maintained by Darkchilde, a true fan of the show (and many other terrific TV subjects), click here to access.  She also has separate sections on Tyne Daly, click here, and Sharon Gless, click here, with links to an incredible array of articles. Most resources from 2000 and earlier but a real treasure trove!

We hope that you will be motivated to visit Cagney & Lacey again!  They are the kind of good friends that you never want to lose touch with.

Don't forget to check out the other great entries in the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon!


Rick29 said...

I didn't watch CAGNEY & LACEY when it was originally broadcast. Sadly, I didn't appreciate it nor its stars at the time. But I have since come to admire its cast from their other work, especially Tyne Daly in THE ENFORCER and Sharon Gless on BURN NOTICE. I'd love to see C&L now. I remember it as something of a landmark show, principally for its exploration of the the characters' lives on their job and in their homes. Frankly, I can't imagine Loretta Swit nor Meg Foster (love your "wolf-blue eyes" description) as Cagney. Sharon Gless was the perfect choice. You're right, of course, about socially relevant shows not faring well in syndication. I wish there were other outlets for watching great classic television, though I am thankful for MeTV and Antenna TV.

Hal said...

Excellent and thorough summary. Hour long dramas from the 80's in general didn't fare as well in reruns as those the decade before it for some reason. Exceptions seem to be Magnum PI and Remington Steele (the latter, while an excellent show, I suspect Pierce Brosnan's high profile since has a lot to do with it). But C&L is consistent quality from beginning to end.

I think Loretta Swit would have done very well in the role, but it was probably better to have someone not so identified with another series in this one. Sharon Gless was outstanding, regardless.

Worth mentioning: Tyne Daly's husband Georg Stanford Brown directed a number of episodes of C&L but only guest starred once.

Lisa said...

Thanks for the comments! I think my favorite thing now is that Gless and Daly forged a lifelong connection with each other!

Such great talent in front of and in back of the camera, such as G.S. Brown's directing work and so many others, too.

Rick, I also wish there were some other places to watch older TV without having to purchase the DVDs myself! :-)

Thanks for the comments!!

Joanna said...

Thanks for writing about Cagney 7 Lacey. Julie D'Acci's book you mentioned also details the successful write-in campaign by fans that helped change the network's mind to bring back the series. If I remember correctly, series producers encouraged fans--from the key demographics to attract the network's attention--in this letter-writing campaign. This sort of effort has been applied many times since often unsuccessfully. I'm so glad it worked to bring back Cagney & Lacey. A very interesting note in TV history. Thanks for the reminder.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this post and all the resources you've brought together about Cagney & Lacey. It brings back good memories of watching the show with my family. Looking back, I don't remember the plots at all--just moments of warmth and humor between the characters.

I remember actually liking Meg Foster and being annoyed when she got replaced--but I was a kid, so my TV instincts probably weren't too good! (Also I kind of had it in for Sharon Gless back then for replacing Lynn Redgrave in House Calls.)

ImagineMDD said...

What a great article about Cagney and Lacey. I always liked this show and liked the fact that it was a hit show with two strong female leads. The show stands the test of time. It dealt with many topics that are relevant today. It's always positive to see women as leads, they are usually parts of ensemble casts, if that.

Total aside, I remember enjoying Georg Stanford Brown on The Rookies. That seems like ages ago. :)

Jeff Haggar said...

I only watched this show occasionally, but remember liking the chemistry between Gless and Daly. Great post packed with information. Interesting that you mention Charlie's Angels as while researching my post, I learned that Victoria Hamel turned down a role on that lead trio.

Citizen Screen said...

Terrific entry on a great show!! Outstanding acting on this series. It's been far too long since I visit it. A little anecdote I think you'll enjoy - I went to see a Broadway a couple of months ago and as I was in line waiting to enter the theater in walks Sharon Gless. I saw her as she stepped up to the ticket booth so I nudged my friend and said "hey, there's Sharon Gless" and a 7-year-old kid behind me says, "no! she's Cagney Lacey." LOL. He got the name sorta wrong :) but I was impressed he knew the show.

Great read. Thanks.


Lisa said...

Thanks for the comments! Yes, I imagine many people think "Cagney Lacey" when seeing either Daly or Gless. If you listen to that really funny duet they did at the link I posted, there is a great line sung by Daly to the effect of "nobody knows which is which" -- hilarious and totally true for most of us!

In terms of that audience campaign, it's amazing that it "worked" or at least helped the public profile of the show to such a degree, but CBS wouldn't have done a thing to keep "C & L" alive if they didn't think the show had legs. Believe me, TV networks aren't charities. (I was an exec at cable nets and mostly no one in command gives a rat's ass about viewer response). What the campaign did was give the show a publicity boost far beyond anything that their PR departments could have accomplished. The PR value of a grassroots movement that gets covered in media is hard to duplicate, especially back then when you actually had to put a stamp on a letter!

Thanks again for stopping by and do visit us again!!

Britt Reid said...

I love it when a poster covers the various incarnations of a show, especially when it's gone through the transformations C&L did.
Well done!
Oddly, when I've seen reruns on several stations and cabel channels, they usually leave out the first season, and cycle though the remaining episodes.
Hope Meg Foster is receiving some payment for the DVD sets...

Mitchell Hadley said...

Very good writeup, and as Britt Reid says, an excellent summary of the evolution of the show from beginning to end. It was an original in a day when so much of television was dominated by spinoffs and clones, and the fact that it was well-done makes it all the more important.