Detectives Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey are high up on the scaffolding of an office tower block under construction — many many storeys above the street. In the process of confronting and apprehending a corrupt construction worker, Lacey has fallen off and is now clinging on to a metal pole for dear life. If her grip slips, she will fall and die. Her loving husband Harvey (the site manager and the one who brought the corruption to the detectives’ attention) tells Cagney, in horror, that his wife is stuck in a ‘death grip’. Which means that Mary Beth has frozen in horror, and no amount of persuading will make her let go, even if help is offered. She’ll keep hanging on until she is overcome with exhaustion, and falls to her death. There’s only one thing for it, he says. He edges towards her, closer and closer. And when he is right next to her, he punches her in the face.
Or maybe that’s not exactly what happens, as I saw that episode about fifteen years ago and I might have misremembered. But the point is that that scene stayed in my memory, vividly, ever since. It was one of the most remarkable moments of television I think I’ve ever seen. Obviously, this is not a distasteful scene endorsing domestic violence: Harvey does this because it is the only way to save his wife’s life, and it works. But I can’t think of another prime time television show that would have the guts to show such a bold and emotionally complex resolution.
But then Cagney & Lacey was never a conventional cop show. Years of establishing believable characters meant that they could veer far off from the standard detective fiction clichés. Another example of the sort of thing you’d only see in this show (which ran from 1982 to 1988) was an episode in which one of their police colleagues, a macho and chauvinistic regular character called Isbecki, mysteriously disappears. As Cagney and Lacey both investigate where he’s gone, and you start to assume the worst, they start to find out that he’s not the man he suggests he is. For starters, he hasn’t told anyone that he has inherited a lot of money. And when they eventually find him, it turns out that he has been in hiding. Why? Because he has a really bad case of piles, and he’s terrified his colleagues will find out.
This was a show that could be exciting and danger-driven when it needed to be, but didn’t feel like it had to be all the time. And it also had a quality that I personally feel all truly realistic dramas have: a touch of the absurd. When I talk to police officers or paramedics or anyone who deals with the public on a regular basis about their work, something I hear again and again is that people do some crazy fucking shit. Some of it dangerous. Some of it laugh-out-loud funny.
When I watch clips of it now, what Cagney & Lacey reminds me of most is the recent British hit detective series Scott & Bailey (2011-2016), which probably deserves its own Eulogize This entry. Its creators have acknowledged that they saw their show as a sort of Manchester Cagney & Lacey, and it hits many of the same high notes. (Sally Wainwright is a screenwriting genius, by the way.) And it makes me wonder whether one reason why both TV shows proved to be so successful was because both shows’ creators knew that everyone would consider the show to be a one-trick gimmick: TWO female cops, who are partners! In the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of TV detective shows, it would surely look like a tokenistic gesture. So they had better be good. They couldn’t afford to be yet another lazy cop show and trot out the same old tropes.
First of all, both shows needed to get the procedural stuff right. And that was actually the first thing that drew me to them: in both, the more mundane and administrative side of police work is not just seen as a boring chore to be rebelled against: it’s crucial to securing an arrest. In Cagney & Lacey the lead characters aren’t bullying, overweight alcoholics who “don’t play by the rules” and ignore the paperwork, spiralling into an emotional crisis at every plot turn. The job is revealed to be a lot more complicated than that, which makes the stories more believable and easy to emotionally invest in.
With the technical side in place, the storytelling had to be great. And of course, the characters had to be believable. And likeable. Here’s a good example of the chemistry between the Cagney and Lacey:
To be honest, the way it’s filmed looks way too glossy to me now, but I love it when Tyne Daly, as Lacey, drops her nervous dippyness and does that “do not fuck with me or I will crush you” bit. And I wonder whether she might have been the star of the show, in front of and behind the camera. As this interview from one of the show’s creators suggests:
Apparently Daly was obsessed with the show, to the point where I think the writers became a bit terrified of her. But, as the interview points out, she never wanted more lines: she just wanted the show to be better. She instigated a mantra, which would get repeated in every single read-through: ‘Deeper, Fuller, Richer, Better’. Which, frankly, is a pretty awesome mantra for anyone doing any kind of art.
And what was the result of this diligence? Well, initially very poor ratings, and the show was even cancelled. Twice. But the public response to both cancellations (i.e. not a happy one) suggests that maybe the real problem was that the network didn’t really understand the show. By the time it got into its third season it was a hit, with ratings at millions each episode during its peak. And it went on to receive a total of 36 Emmy Nominations and 14 wins. Aside from the first season, Daly and Gless were nominated each year for the Emmy category of Best Actress in a Drama series, with Gless winning twice and Daly winning four times.
And what about the show’s legacy? Did it change the way that women were perceived in police dramas, and in television drama generally? Daly herself is refreshingly unsentimental about it, saying that the setup is basically the same today. Indeed, over the years when new cop shows with female leads have come along (from Prime Suspect to The Killing to Happy Valley) they tend to be written about as if it’s the first time it’s ever happened, which is pretty telling about the pace of cultural change.
But just taking it as a piece of well-made television, this was and is a much-loved show that stripped away a lot of the hysterical posturing of detective drama, and brought the genre down to earth, as well as giving us two very relatable characters that made you care about what happened next. In fact, at its heart I think it’s fair to say that it was always less about catching the bad guys: it was really a good old-fashioned buddy-cop story. Only deeper, fuller, richer… and, yes, better.