overthinking the idiot box

July 11, 2005

In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.

Be Careful Out There
Hot Time, Summer in the City...

by Andreanna Ditton

Certainly a hot time in Southern California, where the streets are tacky and crime is scary, sweaty, and prevalent. The world is awash with reruns or shows that I've already done a cursory examination of. In the face of both a long weekend and the aforementioned Wasting Away in Re-runville, I thought I'd dig through the mailbag and my inbox and my mother's myriad suggestions to find inspiration for this week's column.

As my mom's suggestions are usually preceded by "You know that show where that guy I like did that thing?", I'll start with the mailbag.

So, from Karen (and my friend Tim, who had the same Episode ):

An entire column on women crime fighters on TV that remembers Hill Street Blues and Homicide, but has not one word for Cagney and Lacey? I enjoyed the column and I agree that many of today's female cops on TV lack character in many ways, but I kept skimming ahead, waiting for mention of Cagney! Lacey!

Cagney and Lacey:
Two tough broads.
I must admit that this is a clear sin of omission. Cagney and Lacey was crime drama on a level akin to Hill Street Blues, several notches higher on the quality food chain than Simon and Simon or TJ Hooker or The Fall Guy. But here's the thing; I didn't really watch Cagney and Lacey. Sure, I caught a few random episodes and was aware of its presence on the dial, but I didn't follow it with the sort of religious fervor that I saved for Remington Steele, Fame or, please forgive me, such top tier programming as The A-Team or Dukes of Hazzard.

I do recognize, in retrospect, that not only was the show quality television, but also revolutionary in terms of representing women in law enforcement and women in the working world. Here were two women, two cops, negotiating their jobs, their positions, and the dynamics of family life and marriage. Of being single, the daughter of a cop, and an alcoholic. What distinguished Cagney and Lacey from other shows, and specifically other police shows, was the utter normalcy of their lives. Yeah, they were police officers, and were committed to their jobs, but like Hill Street Blues, the mundane details of living and interacting were what made the show interesting. These were working-class women, and the way that the show wove together their careers and their personal lives allowed viewers insight into the shadings of ambition and necessity that guided these women's lives. It explored the difference between doing a job out of necessity and doing it out of pride and that place where both factors come into play.

These women were products of that wave, and now were an integral part of solidifying women's status within the second and third waves, of representing women in the workforce and the unexpected struggles within the home that resulted.
Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless) and Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly) both had to navigate their status as women in a man's profession and the fallout of this both within their jobs and without. It was a show taking full advantage of the shifting mindset that accompanied the first wave of feminism. These women were products of that wave, and now were an integral part of solidifying women's status within the second and third waves, of representing women in the workforce and the unexpected struggles within the home that resulted from this necessary influx into the professional world.

Perhaps the most important thing the show offered though was an honest glimpse into women's friendships and partnerships. These weren't women who gossiped about men over cocktails, who wore frilly aprons, or tight pants, or business suits. They weren't high powered movers and shakers or kept women living in expensive houses or suburban housewives or glossy girlfriends. They were ordinary women going to work and going home at the end of the day, made better as people and as cops by their friendship. It remains one of the few representations of female police partnerships, and in a genre that thrives on cop buddy movies, on showcasing bonding through the tie of law enforcement, the interaction between these two very different women gave viewers a chance to watch an honest friendship develop. As a kid, this failed to engage me. I wanted more flash and sparkle, more running and chasing and hollering at the bad guys to Freeze! I didn't understand how unusual it was to see women represented as real people and not caricatures, to see police work represented as sort of boring and mundane and plodding. My mom always worked, so that was my parameter for normalcy, despite the fact that I was unusual within my peer group because she worked. But I watched her deal with working, with balancing the expectations of her family, of cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping with the financial necessity of having a job. Watching that on TV just didn't interest me terribly, cop show or not.

But fortunately for me, plenty of other people watched and loved the show, and I can see its legacy in Olivia Benson and Catherine Willows and Kay Howard and all of the other female police officers on television, who, pantsuits or not, have the credentials to be more than set decorations and plot points. These women come equipped with their own stereotypes, their own translations of alcoholism and checkered pasts and poor anger management skills, but they also have ex-husbands and kids and a fresh sort of compassion that allows them the competencies and strength to be good detectives, to be different enough from their male counterparts so that they aren't just meeting quotas for girls on TV. And they can thank Cagney and Lacey for the respect they get, and the viewers that tune in to see the legacy in action.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 8.