Ken Tucker
November 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

When it premiered as a TV movie in 1981, Cagney & Lacey looked like some kind of breakthrough. As they were portrayed by Loretta Swit (subsequently Meg Foster, then Sharon Gless in the series) and Tyne Daly, here were two women action heroes. No Charlie’s Angels, they didn’t trade on sex appeal to ingratiate themselves either to their police-department superiors or the television audience. A plucky scrapper of a series rather than a confident winner in the ratings, Cagney & Lacey glowed with the sheen of high- mindedness. Not only did the show invoke a feminism that wasn’t merely implied, but it also, in the preferred parlance of the industry, ”tackled issues”: alcoholism, abortion, rape, and many more. Knee-jerk liberal before conservative forces were organized enough to give oo much grief, C&L prided itself on its timeliness and themes. The series went off the air in 1988, smothered in glory and Emmy awards, and is still fondly remembered by some: On a recent episode of The Nanny, Fran Drescher strutted into a police station and said, ”This place looks like Cagney and Lacey’s old headquarters.”

Maybe CBS’ Nanny was trying for a little subliminal advertising for Cagney & Lacey: The Return (CBS, Nov. 6, 9-11 p.m.). Take a gander at this new TV movie, however, and chances are the first thing you’ll notice is how quaint all the series’ old virtues now seem. To its credit — and unlike the recent, successful revival of another old cop show, Burke’s Law — the new Cagney & Lacey isn’t a simpleminded nostalgia trip. An attempt is clearly being made to bring these characters into the ’90s. The Return updates our protagonists: Gless’ Chris Cagney is now an investigator for the district attorney’s office; Daly’s Mary Beth Lacey has retired from the force but is pulled back into duty to make some money when husband Harvey (John Karlen) has a heart attack.

The Return is peppered with contemporary references that are embarrassingly obvious — at one point Cagney snaps, ”If he’s a legitimate importer, then I’m Dr. Quinn!” (Hey, maybe Cagney & Lacey is trying for a little subliminal advertising for CBS’ medicine woman.) There are many wheezy jokes about how old and out of shape the two women are. The Return is better done than other old-fashioned crime shows like Diagnosis Murder and Matlock, but compared to state-of-the-genre work like NYPD Blue, Cagney & Lacey seems far more geriatric than its characters are.

In fact, Blue producer Steven Bochco has always haunted C&L; his previous police triumph, Hill Street Blues (1981-87), was a contemporary of Cagney & Lacey. Hill Street‘s more complicated story lines, along with the deeper emotions explored by its larger cast, made C&L look a bit stodgy even then. Cagney & Lacey was always less a realistic cop show than a naturalistic one — the street version of ’50s kitchen-sink drama. But after the gritty yet stylized realism of genre-bending shows like Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, Stephen J. Cannell’s Wiseguy, and now Bochco’s NYPD Blue, the classiness that executive producer Barney Rosenzweig has always aimed for with Cagney & Lacey rings hollow.

The premise of The Return is both trite and incoherent — something about gun-smuggling and murder. Carl Lumbly, temporarily freed of the clumsy superhero gear he’s encased in on M.A.N.T.I.S., reprises his role as Detective Petrie, and it falls to him to try to explain the plot. But who cares, really? The only reason most people will tune in is to watch the familiar, prickly relationship between fussy, now-married-to-a-millionaire Chris and salt-o’- the-earth Mary Beth. Gless and Daly have no trouble reproducing the emotional chemistry they achieved more than a decade ago. While Daly has, in the interim, turned to the stage for creative challenge, she’s still capable of toning down her reactions for TV; Gless, by contrast, remains a subtle actress suitable for the small screen. And so the pair fall back into their roles with reassuring ease, but since the script suggests that Cagney and Lacey’s best police work is behind them, this Return seems unnecessary. C

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