August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

From Charlie’s Angels to Law & Order, female crimefighters have come a long way, baby.

Like so many great TV traditions, the girls-with-guns genre was invented by Aaron Spelling. In 1965, the cheesecake king created Honey West, an ABC series starring Anne Francis as prime time’s first distaff private dick. The show lasted only one season, but the trend hit its peak a decade later with Spelling’s T&A-athon Charlie’s Angels. At the same time, Angie Dickinson was busting street scum as Sgt. Suzanne ”Pepper” Anderson on Police Woman. Upholding the law never seemed sexier.

Female crimefighters became a bit less glamorous in the ’80s, between Cagney & Lacey and Hill Street Blues‘ Officer Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas). Whether it was a result of feminism or realism, you weren’t likely to see, say, Tyne Daly in a string bikini.

In the NYPD Blue and X-Files era, lady law enforcers are combining Angelic babeliciousness with Cagneyesque brains. Three crime dramas — Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Millennium — are supplementing their rosters with attractive actresses who won’t be mistaken for bimbos.

Eyebrows were raised when executive producer Dick Wolf cast Angie Harmon — a former model and David Hasselhoff discovery who costarred in his Baywatch Nights — to replace Carey Lowell as assistant DA on L&O. But to hear Wolf tell it, Harmon’s physical attributes were only one reason she got the job: ”A, she has raw intelligence; b, she’s not bad to look at; and c, she’s the first cast member to have an authentic regional accent,” he says of the native Texan.

Harmon says she’s not ashamed of her Baywatch background: ”As an aspiring actress, I would’ve been an idiot to turn down a TV show that was shown in [80] countries.” She’s since proven her talent in ABC’s FBI drama C-16, so there’s no reason to think she won’t be a believable ADA. She certainly can’t be any stiffer than Lowell.

With Jill Hennessy, Lowell, and Harmon, L&O has seen an unbroken string of brunet beauties, but the addition of ex-Central Park West bombshell Michael Michele to the glitz-free Homicide is surprising. Producers plan to address her looks head on by having the cops tease her character, Det. Rene Sheppard, about her days as a beauty-pageant contestant. ”Rather than pretend she’s a hag, we’re embracing the fact we have a woman men want to f—,” says exec producer Tom Fontana. ”This is virgin territory for Homicide. It’s not that we’ve had ugly women before, but she’s just so striking.” And if she attracts more viewers, all the better.

Michele says she’s prepared for critics to attack her character’s Miss Congeniality back story. ”I know you guys are going to cream me about this,” she says. ”But this is a way for Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana to address the question they feel some viewers will have, and that is ‘Does she look like a detective?’ It’s very smart.”

So, too, is the casting of Klea Scott as Lance Henriksen’s new FBI protégée on Millennium. Scott showed she could be tough and sensual as Officer Nona Valentine on Brooklyn South last season, so maybe she can help loosen up Henriksen’s terminally intense Frank Black. ”Klea is one of the most beautiful women I’ve seen in a long time,” says new Millennium executive producer Michael Duggan. ”But it’s not just a model beauty — it’s really an intelligent beauty.” Which is something nobody ever said about Jerry Orbach.

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