by Kathleen Ernst
The first two books in my Chloe Ellefson mystery series take place in 1982. I once asked a retired policeman about issues he remembered from the 80s, and he answered without hesitation: the widespread integration of women into police departments.
I recently revisited two police dramas that debuted in 1982. (Hey, it’s research.)
T. J. Hooker starred William Shatner as a veteran police sergeant. In the first season, women were largely invisible. One female officer shows up behind a desk, and officers’ wives bake for PD social gatherings.
In the second season Heather Locklear is introduced as Officer Stacy Sheridan. She’s on the street, fluffy hair and all, working with the guys. (Except when she shows up in short-shorts.)
Cagney and Lacey, which also became a prime time series in 1982, focused much more on the role of women in police work. Christine Cagney (who is single) and Mary Beth Lacey (who has a husband and kids) are detectives in New York, struggling to find their place among their male colleagues.
In the first episode, the two women are asked to portray prostitutes, serving as decoys for a murderer. The implication is that while they strut their stuff, the men will do the real cop work and catch the killer. Later episodes deal with a variety of social issues, including date rape. The male cops, even when well intentioned, sometimes make insensitive or demeaning comments. Meanwhile the two women, who are very different, forge an honest friendship.
Debates about the presentation of women cops took place behind the scenes as well. Most people identify the role of Christine Cagney with Sharon Gless. In the first TV season, however, Cagney was played by Meg Foster. According to various reports, CBS canned Foster because she wasn’t “feminine enough.” (Trivia question: Can you name the well-known actress who originated the role of Cagney in the 1981 television movie?)
T. J. Hooker aired for five seasons. Cagney and Lacey had a longer run; it was brought back from cancellation by a tidal wave of fan protest, and after the series ended, four movies reunited the main characters.
It’s been fascinating to watch some of these old broadcasts. I don’t assume that they accurately portray 1982 police procedures, any more than CSI accurately portrays the current state of forensic investigation for today’s average crime. Still, these shows provide a window back to the early 1980s. These were the shows that my characters might have watched.
I remember watching, and enjoying, Cagney and Lacey. T.J. Hooker—not so much. Do you remember watching either of these? What were your impressions at the time? (I know, I know, that’s too long ago for some to recall!)