Watching Merritt Wever and Toni Collette on Netflix’s limited series “Unbelievable,” it got me thinking about another series that featured two dedicated women cops, “Cagney and Lacey.” Back in the early ’80s, TV producer Barney Rosenzweig was influenced by his feminist girlfriend and future wife Barbara Corday to make the first female-driven buddy film with a script by Corday and Barbara Avedon. It wasn’t picked up by movie studios so they took it to TV networks. Only CBS jumped on it.
In the original TV movie that aired in 1981, Loretta Swit played New York City police detective Christine Cagney but couldn’t do the series because of her commitment to “M*A*S*H.” The role was then taken over by Meg Foster on the show’s first season in 1982. But there was concern that she was too tough in the role — causing some viewers to view the pair as lesbians — and she was replaced by Sharon Gless, whose reserved take on the single career-driven Cagney proved a perfect match with Tyne Daly‘s outspoken and vivacious Mary Beth Lacey, a wife and a mother to two boys, as her crime-fighting partner. The series would take a while to get off the ground, while fending off two cancellation attempts.
But the series would go back into production in 1984 and landed among the top 10 most-watched shows for that season. “Cagney and Lacey” would go on to win 36 Emmy nominations and 14 wins, including Best Drama Series in 1985 and 1986. Meanwhile, its two stars took turns winning as a lead actress in a drama series, four wins for Daly and two for Gless. Four TV movies in the ’90s would continue Cagney and Lacey’s relationship, with Christine promoted and working at a District Attorney’s office and Mary Beth retired from the force.
Wever and Collette, whose detectives join forces while tracking down a serial rapist who has attacked women in multiple states in the miniseries “Unbelievable,” already have TV awards cred. Wever won a 2013 supporting comedy actress Emmy for her upbeat hospital nurse on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and took home another Emmy in 2018 for her work on another Netflix miniseries “Godless.” Collette was lauded with an Emmy win in 2009 for her as a lead in the Showtime comedy series “United States of Tara” as a woman who transitions into multiple personalities when she experiences stress.
If you don’t count TNT’s “Rizzoli & Isles,” with Angie Harmon as Boston homicide detective Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as a forensic expert for the same police department that aired for seven seasons starting 2010, “Unbelievable” is the first time since “Cagney and Lacey” that a pair of female cops were the lead characters on a series.
Like “Cagney and Lacey,” influential female talent is among the driving forces behind the eight-episode web effort based on a multi-state real-life investigation that was turned into a radio episode of “This American Life,” including director Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), writer, director and producer Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) and Katie Couric as a producer.
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Male detectives mishandle the first case of rape that occurred in Washington State and their treatment of the traumatized victim (a terrific Kaitlyn Dever) is far from sympathetic, leading her to be charged with falsely reporting a crime. Three years later, Wever’s empathetic and soothing cop Karen Duvall finds similarities to that case when investigating a rape in Colorado — that the attacker was fastidious in leaving no physical evidence on the scene and his victim.
Duvall reaches out to another officer, Grace Rasmussen (Collette), whose brusque personality is quite different than the religious and calming Duvall. The opposites become a dream team of sorts — and like Cagney and Lacey, they are humanized by their domestic circumstances as they steadfastly search for such evidence as security footage of suspicious vehicles and photos on porn sites of possible victims.
On Gold Derby’s combined Golden Globes TV odds prediction site, Collette is ranked at No. 3 among the actresses competing for TV movie/ series actress and Wever sits at No. 5. As for Dever, she is at No. 6 among TV supporting actresses. The show itself is in fourth place among movie/limited series candidates.
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