Cagney & Lacey: A Guide to Female Friendship -The Toast

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Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite’s past work for The Toast can be found here.

It’s been well-documented (here, here, and here) that on-screen female friendships are sorely lacking in almost all respects. A few scenarios are common: women hate each other but pretend to be friends, they only meet to discuss men and then don’t seem to talk until the next dramatic event, one serves as a sidekick or sounding board to the other, or they’re thrust together and grudgingly begin to tolerate one another. Sometimes these scenarios can be fun, but most of the time they’re unrealistic and uninteresting. 

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A few weeks ago, I got fed up with watching boring and/or unrealistic lady-friendships on TV, and I went looking for something to fill the void. You can only imagine my delight when I found the entirety of Cagney & Lacey on Hulu, just waiting for me to dive right in. Cagney & Lacey stars Tyne Daly as Mary Beth Lacey and Sharon Gless (Seasons 2-7) and Meg Foster (Season 1) as Chris Cagney, two NYPD cops entering a male-dominated precinct in the 1980s. The show was originally produced as a TV movie in 1974 by Barbara Avedon, Barbara Cordray, and Barney Rosenzweig, which the creators were hoping to turn into a hit with a feminist bent. 

In 1982, the TV movie was spun off into the television series, starring Daly and Foster as the title characters. In the first six episodes, Cagney & Lacey covers institutional racism, undocumented workers, and PTSD, all while delivering a showstopper of late 1980s fashion choices, replete with shoulder pads, pointy shoes, and every handbag I have ever dreamed of. During the first season, fears were raised about Cagney appearing “too masculine” and giving the show a whiff of lesbianism. For the second season, the role was recast with Sharon Gless, who was supposed to give Cagney a feminine edge and a more middle-class background, to counterbalance Lacey’s brash, working-class character. This change, as well as a shift away from the overtly Norman Lear-style politics of each episode, was intended to bring in a wider viewership and endear audiences to the show, and it worked—the series lasted for seven seasons, won a number of Emmys, and spawned four TV movies (including one called Cagney & Lacey: The View Through the Glass Ceiling), following its cancellation in 1988.

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Every episode, Cagney and Lacey face a crime or a task that leaves them questioning their morals, their place in the justice system, or their place in society. They constantly have to prove themselves in the workplace. Chris tries to be “one of the guys” even when it means going along with cruel practical jokes, and Mary Beth tries to work late nights and spend time with her kids at home. The presentation of working women is not glamorized or vilified—it just shows how hard it can be. 

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Cagney & Lacey often walks the line between hard cop drama and slice-of-life observations, neither of which is especially glossy. Both cops come from working-class roots (although Cagney’s story delineates a middle-class upbringing), and their work deals with class issues in ways that few shows do today. Mary Beth and her husband Harvey (played by John Karlen) both work blue-collar jobs and worry about money, especially after Harvey has an accident and can’t return to work. Cagney feels pressure to settle down and get married despite having career goals that would make it difficult. They also deal with heavier issues, including Chris’s alcoholism, and Mary Beth’s battle with breast cancer, in ways that don’t glorify or trivialize their plights for cheap drama. 

Another common theme is on-screen female friendships is competition for men, power, or things. On Cagney & Lacey, Chris and Mary Beth really care about and respect one another, and rarely do they compete. Both of them know that without the other, they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere in the precinct. They know they have to work twice as hard to command respect, and they support each other through these efforts, whether it’s studying for the sergeant’s exam or talking to a particularly difficult witness. 

At the same time, they resent how hard they have both worked to get where they are in their careers, essentially paving the way for new women coming into the force. In an episode from the second season, “Affirmative Action,” a new cop joins the precinct who is also a woman. The other officers treat her fairly and with respect, leading Chris and Mary Beth to resent her for having an easier time before realizing that she has what they never did—two women to look up to in the office. Instead of making it more difficult for the new recruit, Mary Beth and Chris try to make it easier for her to do her job well, and in turn feel better for doing so.

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Despite having to work so hard to garner respect from other people, Mary Beth and Chris are secure in their positions as police officers and as women in society. They are card-carrying feminists without having it be the subject of great fanfare and debate. One of my favourite episodes from the first season, “Better Than Equal,” the two are assigned to protect an anti-feminist activist from a stalker, the indignation and resignation on Meg Foster’s face as she watches the Phyllis Schlafly-like figure deliver a diatribe against working mothers on a talk show is priceless. I was so excited to hear someone call themselves a feminist on TV, and not have it turned into a joke, that I forgot that this happened on TV in 1982 (which is really sad).

As the series entered the third season and began to pick up momentum, its content and tone changed significantly. The plotlines became more extreme—Lacey held hostage in an abandoned train car, firebombs, and multiple homicides in a single episode, and more focus was placed on Cagney’s romances in the office and outside it. There are multiple episodes that deal with rape, abortion, and sexual assault, that are thoughtful and well-written, humanizing Chris and Mary Beth as well as the women they meet, and raising controversial issues with audiences throughout the decade. 

One thing that never changed was the chemistry between the characters, and really, between Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless. Most of the time, I wouldn’t pay attention to the plotline, but would look forward to what happened when the women left the precinct. Even if they weren’t friends in real life (and I refuse to believe that they wouldn’t be), their relationship onscreen is nuanced, expressive, and real. You get the sense that they were friends long before we meet them in Season One, which makes the friendship even more believable than if they were forced together like an odd cop couple often is. 

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The show lives on in many ways, like in the recent SNL parody, ‘Dyke and Fats.’ But it lives on in other ways too—Rizzoli and Isles, The Heat, and other “revolutionary” stories of women who work together. Phrases like “Sleeper hit” and “surprise hit” are still being used to describe almost any new offering starring women, indicating that executives still don’t quite believe that women can draw audiences. If critics are repeating the same things they were when Cagney & Lacey came on the air, it’s clear we still need these ladies, even thirty years later.

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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