THE PREGNANT DETECTIVE
New York Times Magazine, Sept. 22, 1985
The Pregnant Detective: 'Cagney & Lacey,' TV's sole drama with 2 female leads, faces the issue of pregnancy. In a large, stately home in a quiet, old-money Los Angeles neighborhood, the television producer Barney Rosenzweig got ready for work. A particularly adept practitioner of West Coast sartorial style, he picked an outfit that could best be described as authoritatively casual; handsome crew-neck sweater, pale shirt underneath, khaki slacks, and pastel argyle socks slipped into soft leather loafers.
Downstairs, the swinging door that led from kitchen to dining room swooshed back and forth as breakfast was set forth on a large, wooden table-decorative baskets lined with cloth napkins and overflowing with an assortment of rolls, jars of jam, butter and thermos bottles of coffee, with and without caffeine.
Birds sang in the trees outside, late spring sunlight brightened the pale yellow walls and bounced off the fat, flowered upholstery; if a script had called for a setting that exuded calm, this was it. And, just like a set in a script, it was a perfectly contrived illusion.
Rosenzweig, the executive producer of "Cagney & Lacey," the CBS television series about two women detectives in the New York City Police Department, was about to preside over an emergency staff meeting on a morning when staff members should have been embarking on a three-month hiatus. They were there to discuss the unexpected news that the actress Tyne Daly, who plays Detective Lacey, and her husband, the actor-director George Stanford Brown, were expecting a baby. Daly would be pregnant for most of the production schedule for the series, which would resume on Monday, Sept. 30.
Detective Lacey is hardly the first television character to conceive. Lucille Ball's wacky Lucy and her band leader husband started a small-screen family over 30 years ago. Last year, several real-life pregnancies were reflected in story lines. The characters played by Meredith Baxter Birney and Rhea Periman, respectively of the situation comedies "Family Ties" and "Cheers," were allowed to conceive, although Shelley Long's pregnancy was hidden from the camera because her character on "Cheers" was a single woman. Pregnancy was such a popular topic that the actress Barbara Bosson, for example, who was not expecting, was padded so that the divorced mother she plays on "Hill Street Blues" could have a child out of wedlock. And tortured or troublesome pregnancies have been a staple of soap operas for years.
But this pregnancy will be different, because "Cagney & Lacey" is an anomaly in network prime- time episodic programming - the only dramatic series that features women in the lead roles. This baby will be born center stage, without the tranquilizing effects of a laugh track.
Mary Beth Lacey and her partner Christine Cagney (played by Sharon Gless) are unlikely figures in prime time, where most women are younger, better looking and single. Detective - this season, Sergeant - Cagney is single, but she is in her late 30's, late enough for her unmarried status to be an emotional issue for her, rather than a transitional phase. She is also an ambitious, driven wiseacre who isn't about the kind of flirtatious sexual fling traditionally associated with male characters.
Detective Lacey, much more the earth-mother type, is an emotional, dedicated, street-tough cop married to a frequently unemployed construction worker, and the mother of two boys.
Not only does the show dare the unusual with two women leads, it is an oddity as a cop show, too, admittedly weak on action and strong on issues: stories on breast cancer, sexual harassment, abandoned children. There aren't as many car chases as there are scenes in what the show's writers call "The Jane," the women's restroom where the only two female detectives in the precinct can have a little privacy.
Until now, the rewards for being different have been few. In the four embattled years since "Cagney & Lacey" began as a movie for television, the show has been canceled twice, only to arise again twice after Rosenzweig mounted massive resuscitation campaigns in the press. It has survived low ratings, shifting time slots and three actresses in the role of Christine Cagney.
But this year, finally, the series is at the right place at the right time. CBS has structured its Monday night lineup with women in mind, to offer an alternative to ABC's "Monday Night Football." In its crucial 10 P.M. time slot, "Cagney & Lacey" -forced by events to tackle the story of how a 38-year-old working woman decides when and whether to have a child, and how to juggle family and career-could well strengthen CBS's standing by addressing issues that have lately become a national obsession.
Members of the "Cagney & Lacey" staff straggled into the meeting, heads bowed, briefcases bulging. The only one who seemed to welcome the challenge was Rosenzweig himself, who posed his standard query: "What are we saying to the women of America?" To him, the pending baby represented a chance to make a social comment. It was, to be sure, also a lever to use with the network to get an early, full-season renewal, so that production could begin well before Daly was due to deliver.
For a man whose career resembled a roller-coaster ride, his current comfortable situation contrasted sharply with his predicament in 1976 when, in need of a job, he spent a season producing "Charlie's Angels." Now the promise of a secure full season and the challenge of creating a prime-time pregnancy far outweighed the discomfort of going back to work without a vacation.
Everyone else present seemed temporarily paralyzed by questions of logistics, deadlines and schedules; even the hushed surroundings and the civilizing influence of breakfast did not soften the edge of group panic. These people might know episodic television; they did not know much about babies. Rosenzweig is the father of three grown daughters, born before today's trend toward later pregnancies and actively involved fathers. Steve Brown and Terry Lousie Fisher, the two writer- producers, are both single and childless, as is the co-producer P. K. Knelman and the executive story consultant Patricia Green. The executive story editor, Georgia Jeffries, the mother of two young children, was regarded with suspicion because she had been too adamantly happy throughout both pregnancies.
Barbara Corday, co-writer of the original "Cagney & Lacey" television movie and now Rosenzweig's wife, had gone on from writing to blaze a feminist trail through television, first as head of comedy series development for ABC. Next she formed a production company, and then left to join Columbia Pictures Television, where she is now the president, overseeing development and production of prime-time and daytime features.
Although she no longer had daily dealings with "Cagney & Lacey," she sat in on this meeting, and confirmed her husbands believe in "reverse sexism," which meant hiring a disproportionate number of women to keep his series on the right track. He believes that women have information he did not have - as his wife demonstrated when she gently pointed out that Daly's pregnancy would begin to show before any scripts could be shot.
There was no time to cower behind a discussion about salvaging existing scripts. What Rosenzweig called "the arc of the pregnancy, where it goes and when it goes," would have to be discussed immediately. With a collective deep breath, they set to work.
For hours, they debated the way a modern working woman's late pregnancy should look, aware that they had to satisfy three criteria. Rosenzweig looked for a mix of social responsibility and entertainment; the network hoped, more cautiously, for entertainment without too much provocation; and the two stars insisted on their notions, developed over the years, of how the characters should act.
This, someone said, should be a planned baby because an accident would imply that Lacey was not careful about birth control, which was an irresponsible message to send to the women of America. But, it was pointed out, the character had breast cancer last year, in a two-part story that was one of the highest-rated shows of "Cagney & Lacey." Why would Lacey get pregnant after a cancer scare?
Rosenzweig liked the dramatic implications of such a decision: "We can infer that this is a grasping at life after a brush with death."
Some story-line issues are easy. Everyone agreed on the reaction from the two Lacey sons ("It's living proof that your mother has sex; it's embarrassing"), the sex of the baby (unanimous preference for a girl) and the conflicts that would erupt between Lacey and Cagney as the pregnancy progressed.
Then the real world, and Rosenzweig's perceived responsibilities to it, intruded. Someone said that a woman Mary Beth Lacey's age would be likely to have amniocentrisis, a procedure performed between the 15th and 17th weeks of pregnancy to assure that the fetus does not suffer from certain abnormalities.
Many women would choose to have an abortion if the test showed that their baby would, for example, suffer from Down's syndrome, which usually results in mental retardation and physical handicaps, and is more common among children of older pregnant women. The meeting sentiment was decidedly pro-choice. But the character of Mary Beth Lacey was a doting mother who, in one episode, proclaimed of an abandoned deaf child, "She's perfect. She just can't hear." This was not a woman who would opt for an abortion at this stage of her life.
Rosenzweig was not at all pleased at the notion that his show would come out against a woman's right to make a choice - that he was going to be boxed into a corner by a character he had helped to create. He knew that Daly would share his dismay, that her disapproval was a formidable obstacle
"You've got to be very careful," he muttered. "Mary Beth wouldn't abort a Down's syndrome baby. But then you're saying to women, 'Do not have an abortion. ' "
For the moment, the best solution was to avoid the issue. Mary Beth Lacey would have amniocentrisis simply because her doctor insisted on it for all women her age, and the tests would show a healthy baby. Weeks later, as the writers created the details of individual shows, they would face the question of Detective Lacey's attitude on abortion. For now, they were spared the awkward choice between loyalty to the character they had created and loyalty to their own consciences.
Inserting social issues into an entertaining format is important to Tyne Daly, whose pregnancy occasioned Rosenzweig's philosophical seminar. An actress who has played everything from classical drama to daytime soap opera, Daly seems to have struck a wary peace with network television; she does it, but very much on her own terms.
Because she has been with "Cagney & Lacey" from its beginnings in 1981, her terms are taken quite seriously. She often has the last word on what Mary Beth Lacey will or won't do, and only weeks into her pregnancy, was deeply involved in the process of developing stories and scripts. Less demonstrative-but no less strong-willed-than her garrulous, gesticulating character, and possessed of an elegant, classically trained speaking voice that bears no resemblance to Detective Lacey's bray, Daly is determined to stand out in the prime-time crowd.
"If TV is fast food, like McDonald's, and you have to wrap it up and get it out once a week," she says, "then, on this menu of french fries and onion rings and double burgers we would like to be the green salad. You've got to have something on the menu that's nourishing and interesting. If it's challenging to act, then it should be challenging to watch."
Producer Norman Lear had already introduced previously taboo subject like bigotry and discrimination to American television with "All in the Family" in 1971, but he clothed his innovation in a familiar situation-comedy format. In 1977, "Lou Grant," a series about a Los Angeles newspaper, was virtually alone in its efforts to mix urban issues with entertainment. More recent shows -"Cagney & Lacey," "Hill Street Blues," a series about a beleaguered police precinct, and "St. Elsewhere," a series about an equally beleaguered urban hospital-have had to fight their way onto the air, past the almost apologetic label of "quality programming" that is slapped on shows that lack punch lines, pulchritude or both.
It is only in the last year that "Cagney & Lacey" has achieved both social significance and commercial appeal. Abut 20.7 million people now tune in to it each week. According to David Poltrack, vice president of CBS's research department, a 2,600 family audience demographic sample compiled by the A.C. Nielsen company shows that most of the women who watch "Cagney & Lacey" are college-educated and over 35; they make more money (more than $40,000 a year) and watch less television than the average viewer. Abut a third are men, most of them over 35, with a slight increase in male viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 after ABC's competing show, "Monday Night Football," ends its season. Children and teenagers make up only 8 percent of the audience.
The show's popularity with an older, affluent audience is of particular importance to CBS, which has tried, in the last few years, to woo that segment of the population, while NBC and ABC continue to put a strong emphasis on the youth market. Harvey Shephard, CBS senior vice president, says that the network has sensed a new interest on the part of advertisers in the older audience, "people between 30 and 60, who really have the bulk of the buying power," as members of the baby-boom generation, a sizable population bulge, approach middle age.
Jerome Dominus, vice president, network sales for CBS-TV, is even more plainspoken. He feels that the anticipated consumer potential of younger adults has simply not panned out, while the "Cagney & Lacey" audience represents a stable, affluent wedge of the buying public. "Yuppies are a marketing concept without legs," he says, dismissing younger viewers with an entertainment industry slang term for a movie that fails to continue doing business after it opens. "They spend all their money on rent. I only wish I had more hours like 'Cagney & Lacey' to sell."
While Barbara Corday likes to hear CBS representatives' enthusiasm for "Cagney & Lacey," she knows that its increased popularity, on screen and at the network, does not yet signify a trend: No one has attempted to cash in with another dramatic show with female leads. The closest copy was what Corday calls "that tongue-in-cheek show with Loni Anderson and Lynda Carter," "Partners in Crime," which depended more on the two actresses' beautifully dressed and coiffed bodies than on a substantive story line.
"I'm not sure that the networks yet believe that you can spread this audience real thin," says Corday. "The attitude is, 'Hey, look at what they pulled off. They could never do it again.' "
It takes very little to be regarded as a questionable commodity in network television. What seemed a reasonable enough proposition-Rosenzweig's initial concept was simply "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," with women-turned out to be revolutionary in network programming terms merely because of the sex change.
Terry Louise Fisher, a novelist and former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County from 1971 to 1974, came back to "Cagney & Lacey" after a stint working on "Cutter to Houston," a medical series. She functions in a constant state of amazement at what audiences will, and won't, tolerate. She believes that many viewers still have a problem with women instigating action. "Typically, in American literature and drama, men act and women react," she says. "A woman's husband dies, or her child is kidnapped How does she react? Women in positions of power, taking charge of their own life? Some men are uncomfortable with it; I'm sure some women are still uncomfortable with it."
The majority of prime-time programming has always placed women in a kind of ghetto. When "Cagney & Lacey" first aired as a series in early 1982, according to CBS's Harvey Shephard, "Women were always in comedies. Rarely would you find a woman in a drama in a lead. If she was, she played a nonthreatening type-a nurse, or a mother- or she was a 19-year old sex object."
The National Commission on Working Women's report, called "The Picture Improves: A Look at the 1984 Television Season," sees improvement in the situation, but not by much. In the 1984 television season, 66 percent of all women on new shows were between 20 and 40 years old, and only 16 percent were married. Although 76 percent of the characters worked, they presented an updated but still unrealistic picture: Most of the characters had professional occupations, in contrast to the 51 percent of working women in real life who hold clerical and service jobs.
The handful of women characters who go against this grain are often judged by harsh standards. Christine Cagney-who no longer anticipates the arrival of Mr. Right-continues to be regarded critically by many viewers for behavior that would seem acceptable in a man.
With some chagrin, Sharon Gless, who plays Detective Cagney, recalls attending a wedding where she met a man who catted happily with her about the show. "How's your partner? Please give her my best," he said. 'I think she's just wonderful.' And he went on like that," she says. "So I said. 'Well. Thank you very much,' because he hadn't said anything about Christine. And he said, 'Don't take me wrong. It's just that you frighten me. You, Sharon, don't-but Christine does."
Gless, who among other things had appeared in several movies for television, a failed situation comedy, and as the replacement for Lynn Redgrave on the series "House Calls," was initially reluctant to try another series-especially since she would be the third actress to portray the rather defensive, often caustic Detective Cagney. But the part was impossible to resist: Gless is a single woman in her early 40's who, like her character, is trying to come to terms with the notion that she may not marry and will probably not have children. She has come to share Tyne Daly's strong emotional commitment to her character: "Barbara Corday and her co-writer Barbara Avedon may have created Christine Cagney, but she's mine now."
The character's unmarried status does not hold a similar appeal for CBS, whose response to stories involving Detective Cagney and romance reflects the belief that the only true states of grace for a women are being married or actively looking for a spouse. Viewers, according to network officials, won't understand a woman who's had an offer and turned it down.
Barbara Corday laughs: "We've been accused of Christine being promiscuous-but she's barely what I consider to be a healthy, active heterosexual female."
Last season, the writers introduced a character named Dory for Christine Cagney to fall in love with, but they did not want her to marry him. The network, according to the writer-producer Steve Brown, "wanted a dramatic breakup. Either Dory dies or he does something horrible to Cagney."
The writers tried. Terry Fisher says that she, Brown and Peter Lefcourt, a writer-producer, were running to Barney's office with various reasons Christine would break up with Dory. He'd look at them and say, 'This isn't realistic. Why do they break up?Because she doesn't want to be married. She doesn't need to be married. But that is a radical statement to be made in America today."
In a way, the show had its origins in 1974 when Rosenzweig, who describes himself as "a product of the 1950's...used to a woman whose primary function was managing the home and children" met Barbara Corday, "the first working woman, modern-day type I had ever spent time with,." She and Barbara Avedon wrote a script about two women cops, and Rosenzweig, with the energy only a newborn feminist could muster, shopped it around for five years.
He tried to get the script made as a theatrical film, a television series and as a movie for television. As he ruefully recalls, "I sent it to the network drama departments as a drama with comedy, and I sent it to their comedy departments as a comedy with drama. Turned down by everybody."
CBS finally agreed to make a movie for television; ratings convinced the network to proceed with a series in early 1982 with Tyne Daly and Meg Foster, the latter replacing Loretta Swit (who had played Detective Cagney in the television movie). After two episodes, the show was scheduled to be canceled at the end of the season because of poor ratings. Rosenzweig asked the network for another chance in a new time slot. CBS agreed, ratings improved and the show was renewed for the 1982 fall season, on condition that Foster be replaced.
At the time, an anonymous network source was quoted by TV guide as saying that the characters "were too harshly women's lib...We perceived them as dykes." CBS asserts that the real difficulty was that there was too little contrast between the characters-but whatever the explanation, the incident hinted at just how chancy a show about two women was considered to be.
John Karlen, who plays Harvey Lacey, comments: "When CBS didn't see an audience right away, maybe they thought, 'It's the women, maybe we shouldn't have tried it.'" Karlen has certainly found men resistant to the show: "If I'm stopped on the street 20 times, 19 times it's a woman. The 20th, it's a man who just appreciates a quality show. I don't think it's a show a guy can hate, unless he's a real chauvinist. But a lot of them can, and do, ignore it."
In 1983, citing disappointing ratings, CBS canceled the series a second time. This time, an indignant Rosenzweig went to the press "on the theory that CBS executives may not read their mail, but they do read their newspapers." He also sent his two stars out on the stump to plead publicly for another chance. CBS relented again, renewing the show for 1984.
"The network," says Sharon Gless, with a laugh, "has never allowed us to get cocky."
After years of holding their breath, "Cagney & Lacey" staff members are looking toward a season in which the show, not its fate, is the primary focus.
Despite the show's difficult schedule, Rosenzweig this season instituted longer read-throughs, a preliminary group critique of a new script. It's an unusual step in a business where there is never enough time, but an attempt to allow the actors more chance to suggest revisions.
At one reading of an upcoming script, after a 10-hour day on location, Rosenzweig gathered the writers and actors together. Tyne Daly slumped in her chair while John Karlen rubbed her neck; Sharon Gless dragged herself in wearing a pink bathrobe, hoping to stay awake long enough to attend a screening that evening of a television movie she had made. Although everyone was numbingly tired, they went through the script twice. In the zeal that come of acceptance, barely a line of script sneaks by unchallenged. Daly quietly, but firmly, requested that the word "just" be deleted whenever it appeared in Mary Beth's or Christine's dialogue.
Tyne Daly had done some reading, early in the season, on women's speech patterns, particularly the use of what she and Terry Louise Fisher call "diminishing" words: Women are "just a little tired," while men are "tired, period." Thus, Mary Beth Lacy will say; "Let's go" instead of "Let's just go," speaking to the women of American in the strongest voice possible.
And this season, what she says will be rather shocking. In a segment to be aired in November, a story about abortion clinic bombings that Steve Brown has been trying to do for two years, Mary Beth Lacey will confess that she had an illegal abortion in Puerto Rico when she was younger. This is the solution to the problem posed months before at that emergency staff meeting at Rosenzweig's house ; How could she be against abortion for herself today, without appearing to take a stance against a woman's right to abortion?
If the coming season looks promising, the "Cagney & Lacey" team has learned to expect-perhaps even relish-surprises. They are good soldiers in the war against prime-time stereotypes; if a season went too smoothly, they would probably feel that they had failed, had provided shows that were "too TV," Rosenzweig's ultimate criticism. He and his band have come to consider threats of cancellation, hassles over content, shouting matches and political debate as indications that "Cagney & Lacey" must be doing something right.
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