Honoring the Heroines: Cagney and Lacey

Welcome to the “Walking the Beat” edition of Honoring the Heroine, in which I will discuss various female police officers, starting with those in TV series. Well, not all of them. There are a ton of police procedurals out there, so I will focus on those in which the female detective is the main character (so no CSI in this round) and of which I have watched a sizable portion at one point in my life. And the earliest show which falls into the category is Cagney and Lacey.

Some background first:

Being German, I was never aware of what kind of struggle it was to get this show of the ground. It started with a TV movie, followed by a not particularly successful first season with six episode which lead to the temporary cancellation of the show. But executive producer Barney Rosenzweig convinced the network to give it a second shot and the show was eventually picked up for a full season, which for the first time had Sharon Gless in the role of Cagney. The ratings were still low, but at this point the show had built a fanbase which pushed for renewal. The third season then became the rating success which allowed the show to eventually run for six season, producing 125 episodes and five TV-movies (the pilot and four reunion movies after the series ended). In addition, it became a critical darling. It scored multiple Emmy nominations, and one of the actresses won in six consecutive years, which is partly a testament to the overall quality of the show, but also shows how slim pickings were back then when it comes to female main characters.

In Germany the show started directly with the episodes starring Sharon Gless. And it stuck out, for multiple reasons. Not just because it starred two woman, but also because of the tone and the structure of the show. See, the standard crime show back then looked that way: There were two guy (sometimes three) with different personalities solving cases, having a lot of fun along the way and you could trust that by the end of the episode everything was reset back to the status quo. Cagney and Lacey though went for a more muted tone, trying to portray what was going on in a police station as realistic as possible, while developing the characters steadily. What happened in the private life of the main characters was often just as if not more important than the cases they worked on. There was also no guaranteed happy end. The show could be downright depressing. But it always dealt well with the issues represented.

For example, one episode which stuck to me was about Lacey catching her son showing his friends her gun, which he somehow extracted from her safe box. She spends the whole episode trying to figure out why she didn’t manage to impress on her son that guns are not something to toy with and how she can prevent him from doing it again. Her husband tells her that it is not her fault, the media would constantly make light of gun shot wounds, the hero is shot and one day later he is on his feet again. In the end, Lacey decides to solve the problem by showing his son the ugly reality, taking him with her in order to watch the autopsy of a teen who got shot in a drive-by.

All in all, the show was a forerunner not just because of the female leads, but also because of the way it was structured. And once the audience got used to it, it became one of the most successful shows of its time.


But let’s talk about the two leads – and why I decided to talk about them both instead of picking one character, like I usually do. See, Cagney and Lacey together cover nearly the whole spectrum of the possible audience, not just because they are very different, but because each character consists of contradicting clichés. And I don’t mean that as a criticism, that’s what makes them so interesting. Lacey is the more straight-forward version of this. Being a working-class mother, you would expect her to be the more sensitive one of the pair, the one who fits more into what we imagine women to be. But no, the opposite is true, she is the one who comes off as more, well, “manly” in lack of a better word, preferring to wear trousers and having a no-nonsense attitude. Single-woman Cagney is the one who is the most comfortable in their femininity. At the same time, though, she is the one who would adjust her behaviour to be “one of the boys”, while Lacey would never make any compromise in this regard.

In addition, Cagney had quite a complicated backstory. Since she was supposed to appeal to all kind of woman, no matter from which class, her backstory was that she was brought up by her well-off mother and therefore had a taste for the expensive things in life, but she also always felt close to her police officer father. The rationale behind it was apparently that someone from a rich upbringing had to be snobby, so the show needed a rationale why Cagney was anything but that despite her expensive taste. I don’t agree with the notion, but since the result was a quite interesting struggle between two different worlds for the character, I can behind it. Some of the best episodes dealt with Cagney trying to define her place in life.

In a way, the only thing Cagney and Lacey had in common was that they were both women who had to make a career in a male-dominated environment. So it make sense that they would stuck together. But their personalities were totally different. While Lacey dealt with problems in her family, breast cancer and a later pregnancy, Cagney had various lovers, struggled with alcoholism and (naturally) got raped at one point. But what is nowadays an annoying plot point a show usually visits when the writers run out of ideas what to do with their characters – to clarify, I don’t mind the idea in itself, but it is usually contrived, used for cheap drama and just once I would like to see this scenario play out with a male character instead of a female one – was back then ground-breaking TV. The show focussed less on the rape itself, and more on the consequences, how difficult it is for Cagney to deal with it. Spoiler Alert: She wasn’t “rationale” or “professional” about it. It hit her hard, partly because she thought that she should have been able to prevent it, being a police officer.

Though their private life was just one aspect of the show, most of it focussed on their job. There was rarely a clear cut case, and the police officer weren’t always the good guys. They made mistakes, they sometimes bend the rules and there was a lot of politicking going on. And whatever the case of the week was, Cagney and Lacey always provided two different perspectives on it. There was rarely an easy answer in the issues the show decided to tackle, so usually they both ended up kind of right and kind of wrong. And those are the best kind of characters.

Cagney: “I’m being quiet now, that means it’s your turn to talk.”
Lacey: “I’m trying to think of what to say.”

Best Episode: Season 5, Episode 5: Entrapment (Not necessarily the best episode, but one which really stuck out to me, because it really tested the relationship of the two leads)

Best Moment: Cagney and Lacey discussing how much they should act like their male colleagues in order to fit in after Cagney participated in a party at the district which featured a stripper.

Most 1980s: The clothes the two main character wore, especially the knitted sweaters.

If you are in the mood for something realistic which makes you think about different issues, this is the show for you. This covers everything, from rape in prison over abortion (in a very controversial episode) to police brutality. It is also an important piece of TV-history, so you might want to take a look for this reason alone. But perhaps starting with the episodes with Sharon Gless is a good idea. She is the one and only Cagney, no one played the role as well as she did.

I also want to apologize for being missing in action for a while. Real life and all. I will try to keep up updating every two weeks until my usual break in November, honouring female police officers in fiction. Feel free to make suggestions.

9 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroines: Cagney and Lacey

    • Yeah, well, too much work…last week I went to a wedding, came home, showered and then went immediately to the airport in order to fly to Berlin for a meeting (and back the very same day). I spend the rest of the weekend sleeping…..

      The show can be very, very depressing, but it made you think.

  1. Cool profile. I’ve heard of the show but never seen it. Rizzoli and Isles is a pretty good show with female cops. Also Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in The Heat might be a good one to look at. Anyway thanks for the recommendation

    • I might do Rizzoli and Isles…I don’t watch the show regularly, but I guess I have seen enough episodes to talk about them, and they are a great contrast to Cagney and Lacey. I’ll take a look at The Heat.

  2. I distinctly remember you mentioned them in your article on Mulan – I have a good memory.

    I have never watched it and I hadn’t heard of it before you mentioned it… perhaps it’s not that popular in my country. I don’t watch any police show, to be honest – though I enjoyed the few episodes of CSI I did watch. I have a bit of trouble watching a TV series all the way to the last episode – I usually stop somewhere in the middle.

    Completely out of topic, but I remembered you said you may discuss Cinderella this year, and since I’m really curious about this, I can’t refrain from asking: Is the Grimm’s version more popular than Perrault’s in Germany? Are both well-known?

    • Yeah, I did. The show is fairly old, so this might be the reason.
      It is hard to tell….I think in terms of actually reading the story, the Grimm version is the most popular, followed by the Bechstein and then the Perrault take. But naturally everyone is aware of the Perrault one, mostly thanks to Disney, and the most popular movie version is closer to the Russian take on the story. I can tell you that the most popular iconography of Aschenputtle after her loosing the shoe is her with her helpful pigeons, which is part of the German version.

      • Bechstein? I’m afraid I don’t know that version… is it also German? And which version is your favorite, may I ask? I really like the Grimm tale, but Perrault’s is more sophisticated (obviously, since he embellished the story in many points).

      • Bechstein is another German collector, but the version is very similar to the Grimm version either way, the main difference is the name (Aschenputtel is Grimm, Aschenbrödel is Bechstein). I am partial of the Grimm version, but I guess my favourite is a mix of both. Which adaption I like the best, well, you’ll have to wait until December.

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