Once again, one of my favorite television shows is hanging in the balance, its fate to be decided by that hard-hearted arbiter of American taste known as the Nielsen ratings. The show in question is "Cagney and Lacey," which is arguably the only dramatic series on television that portrays women in a way that resembles women in real life.
It is a program about two female police officers, their relationship and the challenges they face in their work and private lives. They are contemporary women with contemporary problems. In one episode, for example, Mary Beth Lacey, a detective who is married and has children, suffered a case of burnout from the pressures of juggling motherhood and a career.
The story was inspired by Tyne Daly, who plays Mary Beth Lacey and who in real life is married and the mother of two children. "She'd had a day off, the first day off in six months," says Executive Producer Barney Rosenzweig. "She spent the day taking her kid to the dentist and doing errands for the children and feeling guilty that she wasn't with the kids more. She told me about it, and I said, 'Let's do an episode about it.' "
They did the episode, which concluded with Lacey at the beach, deciding whether to return home to her family and her job or to go off alone on a trip. "What happens on the beach is some kind of clarifying moment for Mary Beth," says Daly, who argued for retaining the scene. "She recommits. I'm in a position here where I can plead some kind of case."
Daly also made a case against sexist mother-in-law jokes in one script and against "heroines in jeopardy" scenes that have policewomen being rescued by men. In a recent episode, Daly got out of the police car first and tackled the suspect. Then, she went back to check on her partner. "It's a tiny thing, but subliminally and in terms of image it's very important. I like to see women triumphing in very pragmatic ways."
Women on television are generally portrayed "comedically or as a bit of fluff," says Sharon Gless, who plays Chris Cagney, Lacey's unmarried partner. "There's a lack of realism in portraying women in series work. We have humor in our shows, the ability to laugh at ourselves, but my favorite scenes are the ones that require us to just sit and talk about our feelings about things.
"Most of our mail comes from women. One woman just thrilled me. She said she had young daughters growing up. She said Chris and Mary Beth were the only two role models she sees on television she'd like her children to follow."
"When you look at the tube, there aren't a whole lot of examples of women cooperating and loving each other," says Daly.
"Cagney and Lacey," was created by two women writers; two of its three writers are women, and women have been in charge of producing and directing various episodes. The influence shows in the ways Cagney and Lacey relate to each other, the choice of plots and subplots, the sophistication with which it treats sexism and stereotypes about women. "I'm a good story teller," says Rosenzweig, "but I will never be as sensitive to some of these issues as a woman might be."
The series has received critical acclaim and it got good ratings against Monday night football, but in recent weeks it has done less well against made-for-television films aimed at women such as "Little Gloria." Harvey Shepherd, senior vice president for programs at CBS, says the network will announce its fall lineup next week and that "Cagney and Lacey" is "marginal."
"When you have something that's well done, you don't like to give up on it," says Shepherd. He says he's looking for "a little encouragement" from the ratings of two new episodes airing this week and next. But this week's episode, which dealt with wife-beating by a cop, was up against the final hour of NBC's blockbuster, "V."
The Nielsen ratings nearly caused the cancellation of "Hill Street Blues," which brought realism to the precinct station, but NBC, to its credit and ultimate glory, nursed it along until it could develop a strong following. CBS has an opportunity to make the same kind of commitment to a dramatic series that brings realism and sensitivity to the portrayal of contemporary working women. More than 47 million American women work now, and there is precious little on television that reflects anything in their lives.
Real women do watch television. It has been nice to see real women on it.