Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #18

Series Title: Cagney & Lacey | Years: 1982-1988, CBS | Starring: Sharon Gless, Tyne Daly, Al Waxman, John Karlen, Martin Kove, Harvey Atkin, Carl Lumbly | Theme Music: Bill Conti

Novelist and screenwriter Lee Goldberg, who knows a hell of a lot more about how to produce effective TV openers than I’ll likely ever learn, explained in the 2003 book Successful Television Writing, which he penned with William Rabkin, that
There are basically three different kinds of main title sequences: Format sequences, that actually tell you in narration and in writing what the show is about; Mood sequences that convey the type of feeling and tone they are going for; and Character sequences, which delineate who the characters are and how they interact. Many main titles are combinations of these three sequences.
The Cagney & Lacey intro is predominately of that third sort.

By its title alone, you understand that the focus here is principally on two characters, New York City police detectives Christine Cagney (Gless) and Mary Beth Lacey (Daly), both from working-class backgrounds and in their late 30s, early 40s. Cagney is blond, single, a bit more fashion-conscious than her partner, certainly more ambitious, and an alcoholic. Lacey is brunette, married, the mother of three children, and somewhat innocent, though as an article on the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site observes, she could be “clear-eyed and confrontational in her dealings with both the ‘perps’ and her best friend and partner, Christine Cagney.” Together, they were a striking team--“feminism’s answer to Starsky and Hutch,” as another Web site puts it.

While the show’s main title sequence wasn’t the most innovative or stylish one around, it achieves something that few crime-drama openers have done better: familiarizing viewers with the dynamics at play between its title characters. We see them as best friends, willing to kid and laugh together, but also there for each other--handguns drawn--in a tight spot. One other thing this opener does well is it demonstrates the range of storytelling you are likely to see if you stay tuned. The first part of the sequence, for instance, suggests that you’ve dialed into a comedy based in a police environment; while what follows the exposition of co-stars are dramatic moments--chasing through a subway car, confronting a suspect on a darkened stairway--that make it obvious this is a police procedural. That pairing seems contradictory at first, but it works. And then you are hit with the funny little “flasher” episode (neither detective interested enough in the raincoated man’s equipment to bust him), before the final scene in which it’s made clear that a (police) woman’s work is never done.

Brilliant! And the results are made all the more memorable by composer Bill Conti’s effervescent, horn-filled theme, which supports the amalgamation of drama and comedy.

During its six-year run, Cagney & Lacey picked up more than a dozen Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe; future novelists April Smith and Robert Crais both wrote for the series; and feminist-journalist Gloria Steinem said it “honors women’s friendships and represents a radical departure from the myth that women can’t get along. ... [Cagney and Lacey] are work buddies in a way that only male characters have been in the past.” More recently, TV Squad named Cagney & Lacey one of “15 Great New York TV Shows.”

Yet the series almost didn’t make it on the air. As the Museum of Broadcast Communications site recalls:
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 [television scholar Julie] 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.
Although in the second season of Cagney & Lacey--what fans like to call “the true beginning”--the series lost its original theme song, “Ain’t That the Way,” it also ditched a dismal main title sequence and was given the opening we know today. Gless (who’d been a regular on the Eddie Albert-Robert Wagner detective series Switch) brought more warmth to the Cagney role than Foster had, and the series began to find its footing. In addition to concentrating on crimes, as is expected of any good police procedural, Cagney & Lacey was also about a couple of women trying to be equals in a male environment. The confrontations were inevitable, though generally not overplayed or shallow in their intent. Former Cagney & Lacey writer Sharon Elizabeth Doyle referenced one such episode in an article for the Winter 2008 edition of Mystery Scene:
There was the moment when [Lieutenant Bert Samuels, played by Al Waxman] coaxed Lacey to take time off before her cancer operation. She threw a tantrum in the squad room, pulled off her jacket and poked her left breast. “I have cancer. I have breast cancer. ... It’s this one here, the left one. Does that satisfy everyone’s curiosity? I have to have an operation, but I do not want people treating me like some kinda freak! I’d appreciate it if everyone here would please ... forget about it.”
One of the strengths of this show (and there were many) was its willingness to tackle social issues--to be, for want of a better word, “relevant.” Breast cancer, AIDS, violence against abortion clinics, racial animosity, and marital conflicts (usually between Mary Beth and her husband, Harvey Lacey, played by John Karlen) all became fertile fodder for thoughtful Cagney & Lacey writers. The fact that CBS affiliates sometimes balked at running particularly controversial episodes showed that C&L could cut down deep to the root of what it meant to “keep it real” in the 1980s.

It was interesting to see, and not always predictable, how the two leads would respond to some of these hot topics. “Cagney leaned right--she was all about law and order; Lacey leaned left, a blue-collar liberal,” Doyle wrote. “When it came to personal issues, they often reversed their positions. Cagney took on workplace discrimination and date rape. Lacey tended to be more subservient to authority; she could not afford to lose her job. It was very common to process the issues through their disagreement.” That technique may never have been more sensitively or movingly employed than in a two-part, 1987 episode in which Chris Cagney’s alcoholism, and her role in keeping her father on the bottle, were explored.

After the 1988 season, and despite viewer protests, Cagney & Lacey was finally canceled, leaving the American TV schedule devoid of hour-long shows featuring female protagonists “for almost 10 years,” Doyle remembers, until the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Daly went on to co-star with Amy Brenneman in the 1999-2005 series Judging Amy, while Gless took the lead in another series, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, and has more recently landed as Michael Westen’s chain-smoking mother on Burn Notice. Oh, and they both returned in the 1990s in four Cagney & Lacey TV-movie sequels, the last of those being Cagney & Lacey: True Convictions (1996).

There was quite a bit of excitement among fans when the first Sharon Gless season of C&L was released last year on DVD in association with the program’s 25th anniversary. Former executive producer Rosenzweig wrote a book about his experiences with the show, Cagney & Lacey ... and Me, and launched his own Web site to promote both it and the DVD set. In addition, people like me trotted out their dusty memories of the show to share with folks too young to have seen the series when it first aired. But while there’s since been news about those four post-series teleflicks being released at an unspecified time in the future, I’ve heard nothing about the later C&L episodes coming to DVD.

We can only hope they do. When compared with some of the more stylish cop series that followed it, Cagney & Lacey might seem a bit slow at times, and the big hair and mustaches betray its Reagan-era birth. But Cagney & Lacey was very much a groundbreaking show, one that deserves to be rediscovered all over again.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember writing angry letters when they threatened to cancel it. I loved this show. It was one of the first to combine home life with police work. And how I worried that Cagney was becoming an alcoholic--like her Dad.

Anonymous said...

And Did You Know.... actor Sidney Clute died during the show's 3rd year (I think), but cotinued to appear in the opening titles throughout the series' run. I read somewhere that Barney Rosenzweig did this so Clute's family would get his full pay for each episode and full royalties when C&L went into syndication. I sure hope that's true; it's a good story nevertheless.

Anonymous said...

It was a groundbreaking show, but the opening is kind of plain and regular and confused. The only real personality it has is the flasher at the end, which I love.

Anonymous said...

This is IMHO the best series ever. I continue to watch old worn out copies of the episodes and find them still relevant today. I just never get tired of it. Great show. I only pray that the entire series is released in DVD. I would buy multiple copies.