You have to hand it to MGM and 20th Century-Fox; nowhere on the box does it say Cagney & Lacey: The First Season. Avoiding any potential controversy, they've simply labeled it: Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning, which I would imagine Loretta Swit and Meg Foster might find a little insulting. The whole brouhaha surrounding the beginnings of this groundbreaking show has been neatly swept aside with this DVD release - a whitewash that fans will probably dislike, and which can only hurt sales.
Right off the bat, I was never a big fan of Cagney & Lacey when it first aired back in the early 1980s, although I was well aware of all the controversy generated by its stop-and-start production troubles. That doesn't necessarily mean I thought it was a bad show (although I think it had some problems with its execution); it just wasn't something that appealed to me. But to be fair, the creators of the show probably didn't have me in mind as a prime viewer, anyway. Cagney & Lacey was counter-programming at its most determined. Running against Monday Night Football in its regular ten o'clock spot, CBS's Cagney & Lacey was aimed specifically at the underserved female television audience who were bored with ABC's football frolics, and who didn't want to watch the second half of a movie over on NBC.
Conceived way back in the mid-seventies as a rule-breaking cop show that would feature two fiercely independent, liberated female detectives, producer Barney Rosenzweig and original writers Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon were turned down by all the networks who didn't understand the appeal of the concept. Pared down for a made-for-TV movie with M*A*S*H's Loretta Swit headlining as Cagney, it aired in October 1981, and blew away the competition in the ratings. Wanting to capitalize on what the network perceived as a hot property, they worked up a short-run series as quickly as they could, pushing it for release in the spring of 1982. Unfortunately, Swit was tied down with M*A*S*H, and was unable to headline the series with Tyne Daly, so big-screen actress Meg Foster was brought in to star.
Viewers, however, didn't return to the story of detectives Cagney and Lacey, with consistently down-in-the-basement ratings for this short run series. At this point, CBS really put their foot in their mouths. If an anonymous CBS executive hadn't given an interview about the failure of the show, Cagney & Lacey would have probably just faded away like countless other promising projects that failed to jell with audiences. In an interview with TV Guide, the unnamed executive made several references to the characters being too harshly feminist, which turned off potential viewers. The word "dyke" was even quoted by the unnamed exec. Well, as you can imagine, a small but vocal group of advocates went absolutely ape, spurring on a massive letter writing campaign instigated by several womans' publications, and in the process, probably convinced CBS that they still had a potential hit on their hands (after all, in Hollywood, there's no such thing as bad press). The perceived problem with the show was "fixed," according to CBS, and blond, sexy Sharon Gless was now cast as Cagney - the third actress to now play the part. The series was relaunched in October of 1982, and that season of shows are what are compiled here in the Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning box set.
But CBS had hardly "fixed" the show, considering that the ratings were dismal for this first full season effort. Having the envious lead-in shows of M*A*S*H (the third highest rated show for the season) and fellow freshman series Newhart (which wound up 12th for the year in the Nielsen's), Cagney & Lacey didn't even crack the Top Thirty for the 1982 - 1983 season, with viewers actively turning off the show when ten o'clock rolled around. The show was promptly canceled at the end of the season, and CBS probably heaved a sigh of relief that all the dramatics were over. But Cagney & Lacey really defined the "series that would not die," with CBS getting creamed in the press (along with loyal fans who really identified with the show writing letters of protest to the network), begging that the show be given a, by my count, third chance. CBS, perhaps relenting when their canceled show won an Emmy, put the show back on again in the spring of 1984, where just a few aired episodes were enough to blast Cagney & Lacey into the Nielsen Top Ten for the entire season. Ratings would cool off considerably after this brief, spectacular return (28th for the 1984 - 1985 season -- a big drop -- and then gradual ratings oblivion), but the show would stay on the air until its final cancellation in 1988.
Watching this first full season of Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning, I can't say that it entirely won me over, probably because again, it really wasn't made for me as a target viewer. There's no question that the concerns of Cagney & Lacey are aimed predominantly at female viewers who justifiably felt left out of mainstream network TV fare. Issues such as gender expectations for women in traditionally male occupations, the glass ceiling, rape, male chauvinism in the work place, the difficulty that women face balancing career and family (Mary Beth's usual focus in the series), as well as the difficulties of being a single woman balancing a personal life with the demands of a challenging job (Chris' usual focus) aren't the usual issues welcomed by casual young male viewers (the most sought after viewer demographics at the time) who want a little brainless cop idiocy like T. J. Hooker. However, the notion that these issues were first brought out by Cagney & Lacey (as the bonus featurette about the series, included on this disc, suggests) is clearly not true. Norman Lear alone tackled many of these social problems in series like All in the Family and Maude a decade before, as did numerous dramatic made-for-TV movies from the 1970s.
But looking beyond the intended appeal of the show (which any critic can and should do), nothing about this particular first season stood out as exceptional drama. Yes, Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning's intentions are honorable, trying to marry the standard realistic cop show with the traditional domestic and personal drama. But good intentions don't make a standout show - at least not this first season, anyway. Daly, who I had enjoyed in such action films as Telefon (with Charles Bronson, no less!) and The Enforcer (with Dirty Harry, for god's sake!), is fine as the seriously stressed Mary Beth Lacey, who juggles a complicated home life (her husband is trying to start a new career as a remodeler, and she has two small children who want her at home) along with a personal dedication to being a first-rate cop. Daly, who can at times be a little too strong and over-emphatic for the small screen, nevertheless always comes off as totally sincere in her thesping. She's truly "in the moment" whenever on the screen. Gless is far less successful in her portrayal, mostly because we never truly believe she's a tough-as-nails career cop. During one the early episodes of this season, Gless is chasing a crook on a boat, and she calls out, "We're gonna get you, man!" Hearing that particular line reading by Gless, one is hard-pressed to believe her character had ever spent any time on the mean streets of New York City. And that feeling of inauthenticity is revisited throughout this first full season - a feeling that I didn't get with Swit or Foster.
As for the actual police angles of Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning's scripts, they're nothing special, either. Warmed-over corruption and murder mystery stories that you've seen a hundred times before, along with the standard "comedy relief" elements including practical jokes at the precinct and all-too-familiar light-hearted tensions between co-workers, do nothing to make Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning stand out from numerous other cop shows at the time - at least from the police half of the show's conception. It's not that the episodes are incompetently done (although some of those choreographed fights between cops and perps are pretty laughable), it's just that they're thoroughly ordinary. I don't think it's a coincidence that the producers over the years focused more and more on the personal lives of these detectives, and less on the workplace -- clearly, the personal sides of these two characters were the strong suit of the writers, not the police work. Only the novelty of having this cop show star two independent, intelligent, and frequently harried women makes Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning stand out - and frankly, even that angle isn't as fully realized as it could be in this first full season of the series.
Here are the 23, one hour episodes of the four-disc, double-sided box set, Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning, as described on their slimcases:
DISC ONE: SIDE A
Witness To an Incident
After witnessing an accidental police shooting, Cagney and Lacey have conflicting recollections, and Mary Beth is pressured to change her account.
One of Our Own
A police officer is shot at a restaurant, prompting an investigation -- was it because he knew too much? Meanwhile, Captain Isbecki is determined to keep Chris and Mary Beth off the precinct's new softball team.
Cagney and Lacey investigate a string of robberies targeting the wealthy clientele at upscale beauty salons.
Harvey teams up with Mary Beth to investigate when a former co-worker of his is killed in what appears to be a construction accident.
DISC ONE: SIDE B
Hot talk turns cold-blooded in a series of strangling involving fantasy phone-sex operators.
Cagney and Lacey are reluctant to cooperate when they're called upon to help uncover an informant endangering the 14th Precinct.
DISC TWO: SIDE A
A startling secret is revealed when a Vermont farmer comes to New York in search of his missing wife.
On an illegal-weapons investigation, Chris and Mary Beth team up with a third detective, who suddenly faces suspension when his picture appears in a gay magazine.
I'll Be Home for Christmas
A stolen squad car makes for a blue Christmas when Lt. Samuels refuses to let anyone leave early on Christmas Eve, but the mood is lightened by the birth of Petrie's daughter.
Chris and Mary Beth are assigned to work for Chris' boyfriend, Sgt. McKenna, whose cocaine abuse severely complicates the investigation.
DISC TWO: SIDE B
Hopes and Dreams
A cold-hearted ring of thieves targets the homes of families attending funerals, and a disabled girl is among the victims.
The Grandest Jewel Thief of Them All
Cagney and Lacey must determine whether or not the charming man who prevents a petty crime is actually a world-renowned jewel thief.
DISC THREE: SIDE A
Cagney doubts the competency of a new female detective assigned to the precinct.
Open and Shut Case
Lacey is the star witness in a trial that isn't as open-and-shut as it appears to be. Meanwhile, both Cagney and Lacey try to prevent a rape witness from backing out of testifying.
Jane Doe #37
Chris struggles to determine the identity of a murdered homeless woman, and things go predictably awry when both Chris and Mary Beth attempt to shoot an NYPD recruiting commercial.
Cagney and Lacey clash over whether a date rape victim brought the crime upon herself, and Chris feels honored to be included in the practical jokes plaguing the precinct.
DISC THREE: SIDE B
Chris goes undercover as a nun on a solo investigation, and Mary Beth goes AWOL when her vacation is unexpectedly canceled at the last minute.
Isbecki is taken hostage when Cagney and Lacey fail to back him up properly, and the precinct faces a racially sensitive public relations crisis when Petrie accidentally shoots an African-American child.
DISC FOUR: SIDE A
Let Them Eat Pretzels
The son of an Arabian ambassador hides from justice behind diplomatic immunity after hitting a poor Jewish man with his car.
The Gang's All There
The 14th Precinct faces public humiliation when its officers are robbed at a celebration for Petrie's promotion.
DISC FOUR: SIDE B
A Cry For Help
Cagney and Lacey must find a way to nab a wily con man released for lack of evidence, and domestic violence hits close to home when a fellow officer beats his wife.
While investigating a drug case, Cagney and Lacey use a teenage informant who turns out to be a drug dealer himself.
The full frame video image for Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning looks fairly good. A somewhat soft picture with noticeable grain image looks pretty close to how I remember the show originally airing. The colors look somewhat muted, but again, that's how I remember the show when it first ran. I saw no DVD transfer issues.
The Dolby Digital English 1.0 mono soundtrack accurately reflects the original broadcast presentation. English and Spanish subtitles are included, as are close-captioning options.
There's a two part featurette, Breaking the Laws of TV that looks at the production history of the series, along with the ramifications of the show's impact Commentators like Gloria Steinem and Molly Haskell, along with members of the cast, discuss the importance of the show from a feminist viewpoint. Take it for what you will, but some of the conclusions drawn are questionable at best (particularly interesting is everyone's affirmation that Cagney and Lacey disproved the notion that women can "have it all" -- try and wrap that one around your head when you read up on what feminists like Steinem used to say and write on that score). The fact that the original made-for-TV movie starring Loretta Swit, as well as the first six episodes starring Meg Foster, are not included as bonuses in the Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning box set, will certainly adversely effect sales. DVD buyers of vintage TV want the whole story of a particular series. Perhaps someone was nervous about how viewers would compare those early shows with this first full season?
The Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning DVD box set may not please some fans of the series because the original inspiration for the show -- a made-for-TV movie and six episodes of the first limited run -- are not included here. This first full season wasn't a big hit in the ratings, and indeed, the series only briefly enjoyed sizable ratings during its entire run. Critics may point to its influence in the long run, but clearly, its intended audience soon grew tired of the warmed-over dramatics and the relatively tame police procedures. I didn't hate Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning, but it didn't grab me, either. Removed from its controversy by 25 years of evolving television, Cagney & Lacey: The True Beginning doesn't seem all that special now. Perhaps that's a hidden victory for the show's producers after all. Fans will want to buy it, but newcomers should rent first before committing.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.