After a shaky initial season, this show evolved into one of the finest television shows of my lifetime. Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless embody their characters with winsome humanity. Moreover, they have an excellent supporting cast that often is unrecognized because of the nuanced, perfectly pitched acting of the leads. As if that weren't enough, the writing got richer with each season.
I'm struck by how well this show captures the rhythms and tensions of the era in which it was produced. It would make rich original material for a social historian. More than just the changing roles of women, a slew of social issues are uncovered, many deliberately and some unintentionally. (For instance, it's hard not to notice how white the squad room is. And could they have made Carl Lumbly's character more "safe" and non-threatening than he is? He's the most feminine person in the room. I'm a big fan of Carl Lumbly, who played the same nurturing supportive role in Alias a generation later, but then he had an opportunity to be angry and powerful when the story line led him there. The way his character is drawn in Cagney and Lacey suggests the 1980's desire for diversity and simultaneous discomfort with race.)
The first season, the producers seemed to be aiming for (and missing) a gritty Charlie's Angels, and it's a little shocking to see how exploitative the early episodes could be. But the audience of this show became women who enjoyed watching strong women on television and who identified with their struggles. The producers and writers had the brilliance to shape the show for their discovered audience and created a portrait of women at work together that has power and pathos and more than a little humor. What does it say that Hollywood, which repeats every success a thousand times, has never repeated this formula? Maybe we haven't moved as far as we think.