In 1981, when “Cagney & Lacey” first aired, the show recast the role of Christine Cagney with Sharon Gless after the first season because studio execs thought Meg Foster looked and acted too lesbian in the role.
The complication of women in uniform looking too masculine in our binary-driven society has always been one TV series have answered with a super-abundance of lipstick, big hair and extreme femme-presentation. Edie Falco’s uncomplicatedly butch Abigail “Tommy” Thomas is a tectonic shift from what viewers have come to expect over 40 years of TV policewomen.
CBS is a surprising network to debut “Tommy,” a new series about the first woman police chief of Los Angeles, who is also a lesbian. According to the GLAAD annual TV report, CBS remains the least queer network with the fewest representations of LGBTQ characters.
“Tommy” is a stand-out. As she was in her roles as the eponymous “Nurse Jackie” and as Carmela Soprano in “The Sopranos,” the Emmy-winning Falco commands the screen playing Tommy. With her Brooklyn accent and her strong physical presence, Falco is utterly believable as the policewoman who rose through the ranks in New York, only to be stalled for promotion after reporting that a senior officer attempted to rape her.
Tommy gets the job as Los Angeles police chief when scandal rocks the department. The former Chief of Police, Milt Leakey (Corbin Bernsen), was a known womanizer and serial sexual harasser — but it was the accusation of running a sex work ring that got him investigated and fired. The LAPD needed a woman for optics, so they brought in Tommy from New York — her hire court-mandated.
That no one wants Tommy there is an undercurrent that creates a natural tension she has to cope with on a daily basis. But as she notes to her chief of staff, “If I fail, it will be 20 years before they give another woman this job.”
The series was created by Paul Attanasio, an Oscar nominee for his screenplays for “Donnie Brasco” and “Quiz Show.” The writers are 50/50 women and men. Half of the writers identify as LGBTQ. There is a real commitment to getting “Tommy” right, and it shows.
Attanasio and Falco make “Tommy” more than just another police procedural. Sharp, gritty writing, politically driven storylines, and Falco’s great big-screen presence immediately connect us with Tommy — we get how tough her life has been, as a woman, as a lesbian, as a not-so-good mother. Thomas Sadoski is a perfect foil to Falco as Los Angeles Mayor Buddy Gray, a charismatic second termer who is plotting his legacy with every nuanced focus group response. Gray’s Deputy Mayor Doug Dudik (Joseph Lyle Taylor) develops an immediate antipathy to Tommy, seeing her as thwarting his power. He calls her “Butch Cassidy.”
In one exchange, Gray is lamenting to Dudik how Tommy ignored his commands and wonders how they can get her out quickly. Dudik says, “Did you ask her about her sexuality?” And Gray says, no, of course not. Dudik says, “Well, gay people are more independent minded by definition because they are diverging from the majority view.”
Tommy is forced to come out publicly just days into the job — something she had hoped to forestall a little longer. But as she falls into an easy near-assignation with an attractive woman attorney, it’s apparent everyone already knows.
Tommy has complicated history. She was married young to a man and has a biracial daughter, Kate (Olivia Lucy Phillip). Tommy didn’t fight her daughter when she wanted to go live with her father in Los Angeles. Now Kate has her own failing marriage and young daughter caught in the middle. Tommy is still apologizing for not being heterosexual to a daughter who resents her mother’s gayness and sees it as the reason they were never close.
“Tommy” delves deep into what it means to be a 50-something queer woman running the second-largest police force in the country. The story lines are current and real, including conflicts with ICE and undocumented folks, police violence against Black people, sex trafficking and the ubiquitous anti-gay bias.
“Tommy” is a cut above the standard police procedural. And it is the first TV series in history with a lesbian cop in a leading role. Falco is mesmerizingly good and makes “Tommy” well worth watching.