Cagney and Lacey first aired on network television in 1981, after the unexpected success of a made-for-TV movie by the same name inspired CBS to take a chance on a series. Meg Foster was the first actress to play the part of Detective Christine Cagney, but she was ousted after a mere three episodes. An unnamed CBS executive told TV Guide that the lead characters on Cagney and Lacey were, “Too tough, too hard and not feminine. They were too harshly women’s lib. The American public doesn’t respond to the bra burners, the fighters, the women who insist on calling manhole covers people-hole covers. These women on Cagney & Lacey seemed more intent on fighting the system than doing police work. We perceived them as dykes.” That was in 1982, the year Meg Foster was canned, probably because she’d played a lesbian a few years earlier in the film A Different Story, and the powers that were at CBS decided she was too butch for the delicate sensibilities of the TV-viewing public. (To be fair, her character in A Different Story wasn’t all that butch. That movie’s implausible plot pairs Foster’s character halfway through with a gay male character. Turns out, neither of them was that gay—all they really needed was a bottle of wine and some good old-fashioned straight sex! But that’s a different story.) Cagney and Lacey was cancelled after the 1982-83 season, but an avalanche of viewer mail forced executives— sexism and homophobia notwithstanding— to bring it back in March 1984.

The ladies are back again in 2003, and they’re better than ever. Though new episodes have not been shown in the United States since 1984, I recently discovered the show in re-runs in Dublin, Ireland, where I was spending the semester. Thinking it would beat the other most popular shows on the four channels I received— namely, an Australian soap opera called Neighbours, a grisly British rip-off of ER called Casualty, and the soap operas East Enders and Coronation Street, not to mention all the Friends I could stand— I tuned in one morning, not expecting much. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Starring Tyne Daly as Detective Mary Beth Lacey and Sharon Gless as Detective Christine Cagney, the show broke new ground with its progressive portrayal of two female detectives cracking cases and making arrests alongside the rest of New York’s finest. While the show does not shy away from the issue of sexism on the force, the writers take care to portray Cagney and Lacey as hard-boiled New York cops who just happen to be women, rather than girls who thought it might be fun to carry guns. The show’s focus, like that of NYPD Blue, is on the cases and the victims, not the gender of the main characters. While the show is dated in obvious ways—the women sport feathered hairdos, huge shoulder pads, and ankle length skirts, and the men all suffer from ill-advised `80s moustaches and haircuts—the dialogue remains as witty and fresh as I imagine it was twenty years ago. In one episode, an elderly gentleman suavely introduces himself to Cagney with a slight bow and a kiss on the lady’s extended hand. “And you are Miss . . . ?” he inquires gallantly. Unfazed, Cagney enthusiastically pumps the man’s proffered hand, replying quickly, “Detective Christine Cagney, 14th Precinct.” The man raises his eyebrows slightly and echoes her: “Detective?” A professional woman who is courteous and deferential without self-abasement? A woman who identifies herself by her rank and her place of employment rather than her marital status? On network television? I was weak at the knees.

In another episode, the women are investigating a case of date rape. They are following up a lead, and a male police officer tells them the suspect they’re inquiring about probably did not commit the crime they’re investigating. “He’s not your guy,” says the cop. “That’s not his MO. He likes to do it in allies, humiliate his victims.” To which Detective Lacey responds snappishly, “Oh, so raping a woman in her own apartment, her own home, that’s not humiliating?” “I thought you were a cop,” says her male colleague, “not some Gloria Steinem.” In fact, Detective Lacey speaks lines that are suspiciously close to the kinds of statements Gloria Steinem was making at the time the show was running. Lacey is the more openly feminist of the two. Detective Cagney takes a more “I’m just one of the guys” approach to making it in the man’s world of the NYPD. She wants to be accepted as equal to any man, on the men’s terms; Lacey wants to be accepted as a woman, doing the same job as well as any man, but doing it differently from the way a man would do it.

Another episode has Cagney yelling at the chief, “Oh, so women are just supposed to automatically like other women just because they’re women? I stopped believing that years ago when I threw away my `You’ve come a long way, baby’ T-shirt!” In an episode in which a disabled girl’s bike is stolen, Cagney refuses to be featured in an article that portrays the case as her pet project, because she is angry that people just assume that “all women are always more sentimental than all men.” As she explains to the chief, “I just want to get this kid’s bike back, because I’m a cop, not because I’m a woman.”

Cagney and Lacey have a fight in an episode in which their male colleagues hire a stripper for one of the men’s birthdays. The women are invited to attend the festivities. Cagney goes, happily; Lacey angrily works through the party, occasionally throwing disgusted glances over her shoulder at the revellers. “Lighten up!” says Cagney, when she notices her partner’s discomposure. “We’re just having some fun. And besides, it’s the first time the guys have invited us to do this kind of thing. I think they’re finally beginning to accept us as, you know, one of them.” “That has never been my goal,” Lacey snarls. The women have another falling out in the same episode when Cagney makes a joke about the rape case they’re working and Lacey angrily reprimands her.

The show’s sensitive examination of women’s different attitudes and approaches towards succeeding in a male-dominated profession—and of these women’s personal differences— is one of its greatest strengths. Both women are complex and human, neither is strident or dogmatic, and both struggle with right and wrong and where to draw the line in constantly shifting sands. The women not only make their working relationship function in spite of their differences; they also manage to forge a personal relationship that is as moving as it is believable. Rare is the show about smart-as-a-whip, tough-as-nails professional women succeeding admirably in a male-dominated profession; rarer still is the show that combines this premise with a sensitive and realistic portrayal of the complex relationships between women. Funnily but not surprisingly, the January 1988 edition of TV Guide featured an article by Gloria Steinem entitled “Why I Consider Cagney and Lacey the Best Show on TV.”

The portrayal of police station dynamics is also remarkably adept, and has been praised for its accuracy (by real-life cops!) since the show first aired. The men are all sexist, but in different ways and to different degrees. And despite possessing certain retrograde attitudes, they also have a grudging respect for their remarkable female colleagues. Sure, Cagney and Lacey have to prove themselves. But it is not impossible for them to do so.

There is even a black male colleague, Petrie, who is more enlightened than the rest. Of course, by making the black man the one most sympathetic to the women, the writers succumbed to a clumsy stereotype, but it must have seemed logical to them at the time that the beneficiaries of the then-new affirmative action policies would share a special bond. Nonetheless, the actor who plays Petrie, Carl Lumbly, is a pleasure to watch. He is particularly delightful in the episodes in which he speaks, with apparently genuine awe and warmth, about his newborn daughter Lauren. “I just want to be with my baby girl all the time . . . I get up at 5 AM just so I can play with her a little bit before I have to go to work . . . I never knew a father could feel this way,” he marvels. Admittedly, Petrie is one of the least realistic characters on the show. He is simply too good to be true. But it is lovely to see a character like him, and such a man is not completely out of the realm of possibility, especially twenty years later.

Lacey’s husband Harvey, played expertly by John Karlen, provides a more nuanced portrait of the sensitive New Man; he is devoted to his wife and supportive and encouraging when it comes to her career. They arrange their work schedules equitably so that he takes the kids while she’s working, and vice versa. The only conversation about equalizing child care responsibilites in a dual-career family that I have ever witnessed on TV was on an episode of Cagney and Lacey. Harvey even packs his wife’s lunch. Like Petrie, he is a dream come true; unlike Petrie, he is given a fully realized personality. He does not merely spout clichés. He does not agree with everything his wife says or does, but he listens to her, respects her, and tells her when he thinks she’s wrong. How refreshing!

On the last episode I watched, Lacey, distressed by news that she might have breast cancer, flees her job, her husband, and her two small children for a day of reflection by the sea. There she encounters a free-spirited artist, whose friendly overtures she angrily rebuffs at first, but eventually accepts. The women discuss the ways in which their lives have turned out differently from what they envisioned as young idealists in the `60s. Lacey bemoans her lack of time for herself. “I have just promised too much of myself to too many people,” she declares. “So un-promise,” says her beach companion. “Walk away.” But Lacey does not walk away. Instead, she realizes that she can reconcile the life she has chosen to the one she has always wanted. She returns to work, where she meets a distraught Cagney in the women’s room. “Where were you?” demands Cagney. “We were worried sick!” Lacey apologizes, the women have a heart-to-heart, and Lacey explains her epiphany: “There’s days when I wake up, and the kids are fighting, and Harvey’s mad at me cause I can’t find two socks that match, and the case we’re working on is falling apart, and I think to myself, `I can’t do it. It’s just too much.’ And then there’s days when I wake up, and the kids are fighting, and Harvey’s mad at me cause I can’t find two socks that match, and the case we’re working on is falling apart, and I think to myself, `I love this. I love my life.’” With these words of wisdom on the working mother’s constant struggle for equilibrium, Lacey heads home to her loving husband. Both weeping, they embrace, and Lacey asks, “Do you want to talk, Harv?” “Only if you want to,” replies her husband, “the only thing I need to know is that you’re home.”

Despite being twenty years old— pretty old for a TV show!—Cagney and Lacey is a breath of fresh air. It is remarkably well-acted, amazingly progressive in its political tone and social perspective, as perceptive about and relevant to human beings in general as it is concerning women, and extremely moving. I watched three episodes this week, and ended up sobbing on the couch after each. And I can assure you that it wasn’t, as one of Lacey’s colleagues once so charmingly suggests to her, “just that time of the month.” This show is well worth watching, even if you have to come all the way to Dublin to do it. But it might be easier to check Blockbuster first.