TV on DVD: Since 'Cagney & Lacey' paved the way, TV's female cops have come a long way, baby

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Cagney & Lacey: The Complete Series DVD Box Set
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Cagney & Lacey: The Complete Series DVD Box Set

It's been 30 years since CBS's 1982-88 female cop drama "Cagney & Lacey" made its debut, an occasion that's marked by the new "Cagney & Lacey: The Complete Series" DVD box set from VEI.

But the show's impact has loomed large in primetime since stars Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless (and Loretta Swit and Meg Foster ... more on that below) donned badges as New York City policewomen and drew reactions -- even from the network execs -- that are shockingly offensive by today's standards.

A 1982 TV Guide article on the series quoted an unidentified CBS exec as saying the network had ordered producers to soften the show because they perceived the Daly-Foster version of detectives Mary Beth Lacey and Chris Cagney to be "dykes."

[Related: Check out photos from 'Cagney & Lacey']

Shortly thereafter, a Los Angeles Times article on the controversy surrounding the series -- CBS reportedly approved a second season only if Foster was axed -- quoted a CBS research executive as saying, "When [Cagney and Lacey] dressed like hookers, they may have looked like real hookers, but they weren't sexy looking."

The quote reveals a lot more about that executive's warped ideal of hookers -- even in 1982, it's a safe bet they didn't all look like Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman" -- than about the show, but it's also indicative of how fine a line the producers and stars of "Cagney & Lacey" had to walk just to stay on the air.

Gless was hired for the show's second season to be a more feminine Cagney, for instance, but she also felt she couldn't be too feminine.

"I'd wear those bras that sort of squished you down," says the actress, who, with Daly, swept the best-actress Emmy category for six consecutive years, which remains a record. "Because I was -- I guess the word is 'stacked' -- and I was a blonde … [a TV viewer in a letter to TV Guide] had said I was from the 'Copacabana' school of acting. It was just such an easy thing [to say], because now here comes the blonde and she has curls.

"I just wore something to sort of press it down. I wasn't going to be the blonde with the curls and the tits," she says with a laugh.

For all the focus on the superficial aspects of the show, though, "Cagney & Lacey" played out as a regular cop series while tackling tough topics like date rape, incest, abortion, breast cancer, domestic violence, and alcoholism. Though some critics would continue to write about Cagney's wardrobe and Lacey's hair, the actresses, the storylines, and the commitment to developing the characters won the drama a loyal fanbase, who would help save the series from cancellation in one of the first successful letter-writing campaigns.

"Barney did that," Gless says of "Cagney" producer Barney Rosenzweig, whom she married in 1991. When CBS canceled the show after its second season, Rosenzweig collected fan mail that Gless and Daly had received and sent each viewer a form letter asking them to support the series by writing to their local newspapers and network affiliates.

"It snowballed," Gless says. "Everybody wrote two letters, to their affiliate station and their local newspaper, and the stations and the newspapers sent all the bags of mail they got to the network. That's when CBS said, 'Oh my God, we made a big mistake.'"

Season 3 was a go, and "Cagney & Lacey" settled in for five more seasons that would pave the way for future female top cops on network TV, like Mariska Hargitay on "Law & Order: SVU," Marg Helgenberger on "CSI," Kathryn Morris on "Cold Case," and now Stana Katic on "Castle." Those actresses and their characters are the beneficiaries not only of the portrayals of Cagney and Lacey as good cops and role models, but also of the show's exploration of their personal lives and how they were affected by their job.

Lacey was a wife and the mother of two, and the series took viewers inside her marriage and the challenges of juggling a career -- especially an often dangerous one -- with a family. Cagney, the daughter of a retired alcoholic cop, followed in her father's footsteps, and consistent hints that she was dealing with life by boozing culminated in a two-part Season 6 finale -- "Turn, Turn, Turn" -- that earned Gless the second of her two "Cagney" Emmys and became one of the show's most memorable episodes.

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"That's the one with [Cagney's] fall from grace in her apartment, after the death of her father," Gless says. "She was always a little ... had a bad attitude. And she wasn't an ideal hero, which is why I liked playing her. But the drinking stuff, we planned that, for like, three years.

"She always drank. So they just sort of gave it time, that there'd be this one thing where now everybody would see the scenes they never saw, things that were going on all the time in her apartment. I read something, when I was doing my research, that said, 'When men get drunk, they are considered amusing. Women are considered an embarrassment.'

"And I remember thinking, that is so shitty and so true. And it inspired me, because I didn't think she had seen herself as an embarrassment. And I wanted to fight for it, because of people's opinions of women when they get drunk. I had women write me saying, 'Thank you so much. I hide my booze in the garden hose.' Or, 'I hide my booze in the steam iron.' It's not OK for, say, a woman to have a bottle. It was raw and heartbreaking."

Gless and Daly -- who forged a lifelong friendship during the series, despite Daly's initial anger that her friend Foster had been fired from the show -- talk about their favorite storylines and the ups and downs of the production in interviews included in the "Cagney & Lacey" DVD set.

Fans and those looking to become more acquainted with the show may want to consider springing for the limited-edition collector's set, which includes the original 1981 "Cagney & Lacey" made-for-TV movie (with "M*A*S*H" star Loretta Swit playing Cagney) that sparked the series, the original six-episode first season with Meg Foster, the four postseries "Cagney" TV movies that were previously released in a box set called "Cagney & Lacey: The Menopause Years," Rosenzweig reading the audiobook version of his behind-the-scenes tome "Cagney & Lacey ... and Me: An Inside Hollywood Story OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blonde," and a photo autographed by Gless and Daly.

The limited-edition set is the first package to collect the complete series run, with all three Cagneys ("I used to joke to Tyne that the show is really her playing Lacey to every actress in Hollywood," Gless says), and is certainly a wonderful piece of TV history. But it may not be the last time fans see Gless and Daly together. The two have made guest appearances on each other's post-"Cagney" shows -- Gless on Daly's "Judging Amy," and Daly on Gless's "Trials of Rosie O'Neill" and "Burn Notice" -- and Gless says the two are always on the lookout for future collaboration opportunities. "We always thought of doing a play together," she says. "I mean, I'm really the series worker and she's the theater maven. But I would love to do a play with her."

And the possibility of another "Cagney & Lacey" revival, on TV or the big screen? The new version of another '80s hit, "Dallas," is going into its second season on TNT, and movie adaptations of TV shows continue to be one of Hollywood's favorite genres, after all.

"I've heard people talk about 'Cagney & Lacey' the feature, but no one's ever called Barney to ask what he thought," Gless says. "It would be a wonderful movie, wonderful. Obviously, not starring [Tyne and me]. ... It could focus on the younger generation, maybe Cagney's niece, Bridget. But maybe we could walk through. [Cagney] would probably be with the force somewhere, probably at a desk, and [Lacey] would be long retired. But we could do a Hitchcock thing, just the two of us sitting having lunch as the camera goes by."

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Other noteworthy TV DVD releases this week:

"Transformers Prime: Season 2" Blu-ray (Shout! Factory)

The Hub has ordered a third season of this fan-favorite, Daytime Emmy-winning "Transformers" series for spring 2013, making it the perfect time to catch up on Season 2's finale showdown with the Decepticons attacking the Autobots' base.

"Hot in Cleveland: Season 3" (Paramount Home Video)

Looking for a stocking stuffer for the 'rents or grandma and grandpa? This TV Land comedy favorite -- with the treasure that is Betty White -- is a no-brainer.

"Luck: The Complete First Season" Blu-ray (HBO Home Video)

How did an HBO drama from David Milch and Michael Mann, and starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, fail? Bad luck, unfortunately, when three horses used in the horse-racing-themed series were injured during production and had to be put down. The set's worth a viewing, though, if only to see how the drama was slowly finding its footing and might have turned into another great HBO drama.

"McMillan & Wife: The Complete Collection" (VEI)

The 1971-77 Emmy-nominated series starred Rock Hudson as a San Francisco police commissioner and Susan Saint James as his wife, Sally, until Saint James asked for more cash and Sally was killed in a plane crash in Season 5. The box set collects all 40 episodes of the series, which was part of NBC's popular "Mystery Movie" lineup with "Columbo" and "McCloud," and includes installments written by future "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" co-creator Steven Bochco.

"Perry Mason: The Eighth Season, Vol. 1" (Paramount Home Video)

Most fans will probably hold out for the eventual complete series box set, but truly devoted "Mason"-ites may opt for this collection, featuring the first 15 episodes from the seminal courtroom drama's penultimate 30-episode season.

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