Don't tell me about the Golden Age of Television, that late-1940s-to-late-1950s decade in which the raw, infant medium was said to have spilled over with greatness. The Golden Age of Television is now.
And some of those rare occasions occur on "Cagney & Lacey," the Monday night CBS series about two female police detectives that has just been renewed for next season. You wanted greatness? You got it in a recent two-part "Cagney & Lacey" story about cancer.
Yes, it's true that you can hardly find a TV show these days that doesn't do at least a clumsy imitation of social commentary or that doesn't try addressing some calling higher than mere entertainment. It's TV chic this season to emote on a soap box about life-threatening issues--so chic, in fact, that the issues become trivialized through repetition.
"Cagney & Lacey" is a soaring exception to the trivia. What makes it exceptional is that it manages to excel despite being a series facing weekly deadline pressures.
What extraordinary TV the cancer episode was--from the writing by Patricia Green and the direction by Ray Danton to the performances by Tyne Daly as Mary Beth Lacey and Sharon Gless as Chris Cagney and the supporting work by John Karlen as Mary Beth's husband, Harvey, and Patricia Whitfeld as a ghetto mother faced with losing her son.
The episode handled a tough subject tenderly: A lump on Lacey's breast was diagnosed as malignant. One doctor mandated a radical mastectomy, but she opted instead for lesser surgery recommended by a second doctor.
This was more than a cancer story, though. It was a story about friendship and family that was sentimental without being maudlin. It was also about fear and strength, both reflected in Mary Beth's face as she glanced up at Harvey after assuring their young children that she wouldn't die. What a look. What a scene. What a show.
And what a series "Cagney & Lacey" has become.
Now a hit in its third season after earlier reprieves from cancellation because of low ratings, "Cagney & Lacey" is on a roll under executive producer Barney Rosenzweig.
"Cagney & Lacey" demonstrates that superior execution can overcome a tired premise. The two women are essentially variations of an old cop-show theme: bickering partners. Cagney is more pragmatist, Lacey more idealist. Cagney is a single swinger, Lacey a conventional wife, mother and nag. Cagney masks her innermost feelings, Lacey shouts hers. They continually argue but somehow get along. They are, in short, an epic TV cliche.
As played by Daly and Gless, however, they are also a charming pair whose personas are fascinating and fully developed. This is less a show about crime than it is one about people trying to cope in a world that sometimes seems arbitrarily indifferent and unfair. Like most of us, the characters are flawed, inconsistently consistent and cannot be counted on to always act in their own best interest.
Proving to skeptics (including yours truly) that she has range beyond comedy, Gless has grown immensely in a basically serious role while still retaining her flair for wit. Gless really cooks as Cagney, a character that just knocks me out. She is funny, vulnerable, angry. Cagney doesn't exactly have a chip on her shoulder, but a sliver maybe.
Lacey personifies the clashing values and schizophrenic lives of today's woman, one foot in the home, the other in the traditional male marketplace. She is essentially humorless and talks a sort of fast-forward, yeh-yeh-yeh New Yorkese in which her husband Harvey becomes \o7 Hawvee.\f7 (She is the only one on the show who talks that way, as if everyone else in New York were from Peoria.)
\o7 Hawvee's\f7 role (the cancer story excepted) is mostly to stay home and watch the lasagna and comfort his wife. And the roles of the male cops in the series are mostly to observe the women quizzically, as if watching UFOs.
The heavy hand of the network is occasionally visible here in endings that are too tidy and pat. Between them, however, Cagney and Lacey are able to reflect the dimensions and articulate the concerns of contemporary women.
Yet this is less a feminist show than a \o7 personist\f7 show that is able to poke fun at the doctrinaire. "Well, well, well, two of New York's finest little ladies in distress," the irked Cagney mused amusingly in one episode when their car broke down on a busy street, forcing them to wait helplessly until a police mechanic arrived.
The mechanic turned out to be a woman.
Some other episodes rank with the finest I've seen on TV in recent years. One dealing with porno films and the frustrations of police work featured a sizzling script by James Frawly, directed by co-producer Peter Lefcourt. "I go home every night and no matter how bad it is, I think we took an inch of crud off the city," Lacey said. ". . . .You know what? I think the crud is winning."
In another episode, splendidly written by co-producer Terry Louise Fletcher and directed by Karen Arthur, Cagney mistakenly thought she was pregnant. In one touching scene, having become resigned to the idea of being a mother, she sat alone in her apartment, happily contemplated her stomach and waved, "Hi."
Later she had dark thoughts about her "biological clock" at age 38. "It's not fair. Men choose--50, 60, 70, 80 years old, they decide to have families. I have to choose now!"
Interestingly enough, Daly's authentic pregnancy will be incorporated into the show as Lacey's pregnancy next season.
It doesn't really matter that there are probably no police partners like Cagney and Lacey in all of copdom. It matters only that, week after week, they are at once bold, evocative, entertaining and true to themselves.
At 10 Monday nights on CBS, at least, the crud is losing.