Cagney & Lacey (CBS) pilot preview: Stuck in the 80s

Pilot “Smile” written and executive produced by Bridget Carpenter (11.22.63, Westworld, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood). Based on the iconic 1980s police procedural by Barbara Avedon & Barbara Corday. Directed by Rosemary Rodriguez (The Good Wife, Jessica Jones). For CBSCBS Television Studios & MGM Television. 62 pages.

Description: LAPD Homicide dectectives Christine Cagney & Monique Lacey are partners and close friends who solve crimes with experience, street smarts, and team work. They investigate a different murder each week hoping to bring victims and survivors closure while keeping the streets of L.A. safe…

With Sarah Drew (Grey’s Anatomy, Everwood, Mad Men), Michelle Hurd (Lethal Weapon, Blindspot, Daredevil), Ving Rhames (Mission: Impossible I, II, III, IV, Pulp Fiction)…


You’ll like if you already like: Any CBS cop show.

Likely timeslot: Where there’s a hole in the schedule


The original Cagney & Lacey that ran from 1982 to 1988 and won multiple awards -including 2 “Best Drama” Emmy- never became as iconic as other buddy cop shows from the same time period like Starsky & Hutch, Miami Vice or The Streets of San Francisco, at least on the international market. How come? Maybe because it was not about men. There has not been any successful equivalent since then, apart from Rizzoli & Isles I think. Things are about to change, finally, with a slew of pilots starring female cops. CBS also has Chiefs -and they probably won’t pick-up both- while NBC has the Bad Boys spin-off I already talked you about (HERE). For some reason, they all take place in Los Angeles. Is it because of the blue sky making them look like lighter fares? The original Cagney & Lacey was set in New York. Like ABC’s The Finest, also in the running this year. While reading this script, I thought a lot about ABC’s pilot The Trustee, that was not ordered to series last year. My review (HERE) was called “Cagney & Lacey New Generation”, and it was before we knew a reboot would be in the works. In fact, we learned about it the day they picked up the pilot, never before. Anyway, The Trustee was a superior script despite its flaws because it was really modern, different and also funnier. 2018 Cagney & Lacey‘s is lazy and gives the impression that nothing really changed since the 1980s. And when I look at CBS schedule, sometimes I feel the same…

What CBS could have done -but it was probably too much to ask- was to course correct what happened the first year of the original show. Hear this story: Cagney was originally played by actress Meg Foster but she was fired at the end of the first season because CBS deemed her too aggressive and too likely to be perceived as a lesbian by the viewers. Yeah, they really did that! She was then replaced by Sharon Gless who was asked to play Cagney as a more conventionally “feminine” character and a more “high-class”, snobbish woman from wealthy parents. This is sad. It would have been bold if, 35 years later, the new Cagney reverted back to how she was originally conceived and… what if she were a proud lesbian? I know. Crazy. As soon as she appears in the script, she’s described as stylish, feminine and we’re given the important detail that “She NEVER wears cheap shoes”. She’s also messy, headstrong and single. I’m sorry but it feels like a missed opportunity to me… Anyway, the great news is that Lacey is now a black woman and that’s probably CBS’s way of saying “We’re diverse now”. 10 years after the other networks. Never too late, hum? Monique is polished, cool and married. And also very feminine, don’t worry. When we meet her she wears a dress and stack-heel boots. It’s funny -or a big problem?- but Sarah Drew & Michelle Hurd don’t seem to correspond to their characters’ descriptions. So there are two solutions: either they were forced to reconceive the characters a little bit so they fit better, or the actresses will need to go out of their comfort zone to play them.

For some reasons, there’s no real balance between Cagney & Lacey in terms of screen time and character’s exposition. We don’t learn a lot about Lacey’s personal life though we meet her husband briefly, but on the other hand we already know a ton of things on Cagney, especially since there are several flashbacks from 15 years ago about when her twin brother Clinton died. And we meet her father, an alcoholic retired cop still haunted by the death of his son; while we learn about her mother we haven’t met yet who’s “the rich one” since she remarried. The relationship between our two heroines deviate from the original show for two main reasons. They are not the same age: Cagney is in her thirties, Lacey in her fourties. And they don’t have the same experience at all since Cagney is only a homicide detective for 2 years. She’s still learning. Lacey is her mentor, and that’s her who investigated Cagney’s brother’s murder back then but the case is still unsolved to this day. That gives us hope for a serialized story at some point and it makes their relationship more complex. The rest of the pilot is all about the case of the week, that reminds them both of Clinton: the murder of Kyle, a 19-year old black man. Lacey has a son about the same age, we’re told. And that’s where it’s lazy. Can’t say the investigation is boring but nothing stands out. It’s very classical with no surprise along the way and even though there are some funny dialogues here and there, it’s never really fun. “Expected” is what defines it best. You know… CBS.

The feminist underlying text which was already present in the original show is still there to some extant -and I’m not refering to the fact that Lacey listens to Beyoncé’s Run The World (Girls) in the cold open, though you can’t be more obvious than that- inside the office, Cagney and Lacey battle sexism when the men around them constantly ask each of them to smile. Both detectives refuse and point out that male officers are never asked to smile, empowering the other female cops in the office. It’s not much and I fear the show will never really go further than that but well, not every show with women at the center has to be woke after all. Other than that, the writer tries to make it look cool and modern with desperate moves like putting Coldplay’s Trouble when there’s actually some trouble and Sam Smith’s One Last Song towards the end. No subtlety allowed. Also, there’s a police officer talking about The Crown and later someone’s refering to The Handmaid’s Tale. Like “look how modern and pop we are”. Ugh! That’s not it. My last concern is about the number of secondary characters. We’re introduced to so many Cagney & Lacey’s colleagues… It’s exhausting. You don’t remember any in the end, especially since they come with no description other than if they’re male or female. They’ll have plenty of time to make them exist later, hopefully.

Cagney & Lacey’s reboot could have been a stepping stone for CBS in the way they portray women characters in their shows, with more complexity and diversity, embracing modernity, but instead they decided to stay stuck in the 20th century with the same old tropes. They want to make you believe it’s different but it’s not. Who are they kidding exactly? It’s just another cop show, a smooth production with no ambition. 

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