Decoy: Police Woman was a glimpse of things to come

Decoy: Police Woman was a glimpse of things to come

Presented as a tribute to the
BUREAU OF POLICEWOMEN
Police Department
City of New York 

—Decoy title card

At first glance, undercover cop show Decoy: Police Woman is a short-lived slice of exquisitely 1950s TV. Fencers of stolen toasters face major prison time, mugging victims smoke in their hospital beds, and there are 249 employees in New York’s Bureau Of Policewomen. There’s even a guest cast featuring TV mainstays Peter Falk, Frank Silvera, and Larry Hagman. But Decoy’s 39-episode season, which began on October 14, 1957, quietly broke ground on almost every television front, one half-hour at a time. It was the first television show ever to feature a woman cop (the first to be built around a female protagonist at all); it was the first show to film on location in New York City. Its too-brief run contained a delightful mishmash of dry procedural sensibility and startling psychological drama that directly influenced later shows like the similarly titled Angie Dickinson vehicle Police Woman, remaining a prescient precedent of shows that came decades later.

Decoy’s origins, admittedly, are less than unique. Dragnet is the show’s direct inspiration, from the unsettling brass-fanfare that opens every episode to the disclaimer (“This story is based upon true and actual cases. All names and places are fictitious, for obvious reasons.”) that closed it. It retained retired detective Margaret Leonard as a technical advisor in the Dragnet consulting model, and proclaimed its literal dedication to the department at the start of most episodes. And with minor exceptions, it steered clear of emphasis on the personal life of its star detective, who lived for her work.

But it’s interesting what a little shift in perspective will get you. Casey Jones might have brought Joe Friday pragmatism to the job, but at heart she was a psychological profiler in the Hercule Poirot-mold, which would have been a distinct tonal shift for viewers even if the gender switch wasn’t a showstopper by itself. And it was, quite literally: the show’s concept was challenging enough that it was unable to secure a sponsor, and didn’t get a season order until its production company, Official Films, signed a $600,000 deal with syndication alliance Westinghouse TV. The money covered more than half of the cost of the season, and the ties to syndication assured Decoy a second life before it had even started filming on its first one. It was a significant show of faith; Billboard declared the move “a contractual blockbuster” and noted Decoy was positioned to be seen by an “eye-opening 16,300,000—almost 41 percent of the TV homes in the country.” Sadly, it wouldn’t reach enough of them, and despite being syndicated within months of its official cancellation, the show faded into obscurity. With more than a dozen of its episodes unavailable on DVD or an accessible video archive (YouTube and archive.org host a Venn diagram of surviving episodes), there’s a sense that the show continues to slip away unfairly from a genre it helped define.

It’s a series that wears its intentions on its sleeve: Its very first sequence is of Casey hustling out of an undercover situation to pensively light a cigarette on a terrace with an impressive view of the Chrysler building, moments before being brought in to consult on a case in which the first order of business is to strangle a colleague. The two-mintue sequence marked both the initial adventure of TV’s first “lady cop,” and demonstrated its plan to take cameras to the Manhattan streets. That breathless immediacy to the scenery was a result of both stylistic ambition and budgetary constraints, since the producers wanted to make the most of the location but lacked the financial wherewithal to shut down any public locations. In Beverly Garland: Her Life And Career, Garland described a process where the main directorial strategy was to avoid drawing attention to the camera so passersby wouldn’t look into the lens and ruin the take. Some episodes make significant use of outside shots, while others borrow them only for brief connecting moments between more staid set pieces. Comprehensively, it makes for a notable snapshot of the city, alive in the frame, and it would be worth watching the show for the sheer scope of scenery alone: S. Klein, the Coney Island boardwalk, Central Park, Grand Central, subway platforms, Colony Records, Times Square.

Due to a compressed filming schedule of eight months and an even more compressed budget, there’s a fly-by-night intensity to all the camera work, whether it’s a stealth street shot or an interior close-up with slapdash-noir lighting—Casey never met a shadowy room sliced with a single eye-height beam of light she didn’t like. And to call the sets minimalist is probably generous: The same apartment played home to a series of victims, at least one murderer, and an underground gambling parlor. But despite these limitations, a distinct aesthetic emerges from the season, making particularly good use of languid wide shots for pair and group scenes, in which characters come and go; originally mandated due to lack of time and money for complicated setups, those beats unfold with the tension of a play. But the show also made the most of its big-ticket moments, taking some smart cues from film noir; in “Cry Revenge” (directed by David Alexander) there’s a shot from within a phone booth, the caller looming in the foreground, as outside the booth behind him his accomplice gets dragged away and arrested. It’s a liberal borrow from Hitchcock, to good effect. Occasionally, there are innovative moments that have since become television mainstays, such as the moment in the family drug tragedy “An Eye For An Eye,” as Casey walks slowly away from a weighty arrest across a rooftop, pigeons scattering poetically ahead of her.

Of course, all the visual flair in the world can’t save a show whose central character isn’t up to the job. Luckily, the supremely game Beverly Garland was the show’s unifying element. Casey’s a smooth operator, fond of a dry one-liner whether dealing with suspects or colleagues. But she works pointedly alone, and approaches her undercover assignments with an understated competence that goes unquestioned by anyone in the department—unusual for a fictional woman in law enforcement even today (see also: Molly Solverson). She’s summoned to handle cases in several departments, including vice, fraud, and homicide (pronounced with finishing-school poise as HOME-icide), which gave the writers a chance to explore a range of crimes, almost all of which were less contingent on gathering evidence than on Casey acting as a catalyst for human conflict. Whether she’s pretending to be a blackmailer to flush out a crime boss or picking pockets to cozy up to a career thief, there’s more than meets the eye. Garland’s equally flexible, turning up the charm or rattling through a makeshift interrogation without ever losing Casey’s cool-cucumber interiority. It’s especially striking, then, when she deviates from the mold—her jangling nerves as a hostage, her tense faceoff with a murderous couple, and some flashbacks in “First Arrest” that feature a much more neurotic, restless iteration of the veteran we know.

And even if Casey never shies away from flirting her way through an uncomfortable stalemate, the show’s notable for the confidence it places in Casey to navigate the underworld and come out on top. It’s also interesting that even in ostensibly masculine settings (professional boxing, say), the women are often the focus of cases, and the psychology behind the crime supercedes the whodunit. In some episodes, she doesn’t suss out crime at all: “Cry Revenge” plays out as a one-up game of resentment between a mother and daughter to which Casey only plays witness. The secret that emerges involves child abuse, which was another hallmark of Decoy: Casey’s proximity to her marks often led to exploration of social issues. Not every episode is serious; there’s an art-heist episode with a twist that predates the Thomas Crown Affair, and a flirty steeplechase heist. Not every episode hits the mark: There’s the installment in which someone smokes pot, commits murder, and loses her memory (as one does), and Casey investigates an awful lot of crimes that require slinky dresses and fancy nightclubs. But Decoy most enjoyed examining the reasons behind crime, asking the audience to understand the many forces at work in a way that would echo down a generation of police women into Prime Suspect and its ilk.

Occasionally, though, there just wasn’t any point pulling punches. In “Ladies’ Man,” which involves Casey extricating a woman from an emotionally abusive partner, a shooting victim sobs about her ex, “I begged the court to keep him away from me.” Cut to him complaining to a friend, “No woman has the right to go to court to keep her man away from her.” (He has her shot to prove it.) And at the conclusion of an episode that deals with workplace prejudice and exonerates a woman with mental illness, Casey’s closing monologue is pointed: “It’s possible for a mentally ill person to be completely cured… If she comes to your office, give her a break.” Casey deals with rape victims, the developmentally disabled, the terminally ill. There’s even time for some racial politics: “Fiesta At Midnight” centers around a Puerto Rican man who gets accused of a crime when the victim racially profiles him. Casey takes the case thanks to a healthy dose of skepticism about the feasibility of justice: “Somebody steals an apple from a fruit cart, they’re ready to lynch anybody by the name of Jose or Pablo.” It’s moments like these Casey tends to get the most resistance from other cops; they never question her competence, but her insight sets her apart even in this progressive precinct.

That doesn’t mean there are always easy answers, though, and some of the most interesting episodes offer a glimpse of Casey behind her unflappable facade. In the pilot, she’s forced to arrest a woman who killed a man in self-defense after he assaulted her, though her ambivalence about punishing the young woman is clear; in “The Sound Of Tears” (written by Lillian Andrews, one of few women writing for television that season), a young woman describes the ways a suspect “humbled herself” for the dead man, and demands, “Is that what love does to a woman? Degrade her?” Later, the same woman offers her explanation for shooting the man and spinning a fantasy world in which he returned her feelings: “I have to make a world that’s fit to live in. It’s not possible to depend on anyone.” Her guilt’s clear, but the episode lingers on her troubled isolation and self-loathing, rendering her an object of some pity. (It’s worth noting that Casey’s allowed to empathize with her marks, innocent and guilty alike, without it rendering her  “emotional” or “too attached” in the eyes of her colleagues, which again seems like an anachronistic break for a character whose story is more than 50 years old.)

Perhaps to counter the often-wrenching stories presented, the formulaic aspects leaned hard on all the comfort of repetition and a certain deliberate remove. The denouements, in which Casey usually broke the fourth wall to deliver the moral of the week to viewers at home, haven’t aged well, morphing into a particular, unsettling quaintness. They’re topped only by the so-hardboiled-it-bounces introductory voiceovers, which run the gamut from “just the facts” usefulness to hilariously overdone, some so dire they parody themselves: There might be a tie for second place between, “New York: An inflammable city. The scene of some 50,000 fires a year,” and, “The only crime committed should be a stolen kiss. There were no kisses in the park last night, unless you want to count the kiss of death.” Edging them both out for the win is one of Casey’s choicest sleuthy understatements: “I like to check alibis. It’s a hobby of mine.”

Any single episode of the show tends to be a fun 30 minutes; watching several in a row gives a true sense of how subtly subversive Decoy actually was. Though it embraces the stylistic hallmarks of its age, it’s so ahead of its time that it comes as no surprise it only lasted a season before networks got cold feet. For those who wanted procedurals, there was the reliable Dragnet, and 1958 saw the premiere of a soon-to-be blockbuster more in line with the gender politics of the times: The Donna Reed Show. Garland went on to a solid career in B-movies (including the Mystery Science Theater 3000 features It Conquered The World, Swamp Diamonds, and Gunslinger, all directed by Roger Corman) and on television; she would eventually play the wife of Steven Douglas on My Three Sons. Decoy went into syndication shortly after its only season concluded, but slowly fell off the pop-culture map, and the completeness of the series archive declined in parallel with her popularity. Still, the next woman cop in a starring role (Angie Dickinson’s Police Woman) wouldn’t appear for 20 years; even now, when the procedural has reached a saturation point, there’s still something singular about watching Casey Jones light a cig, shoot some side-eye at a suspect in the frame with her, and get the job done.

“Down the line, you name it and we’ve done it. Today, tomorrow, next week, we’ll pose as hostesses, society girls, models, anything and everything the department asks us to be. There are 249 of us in the department. We carry two things in common wherever we go. A shield—called a “potsie”—and a .32 revolver. We’re New York’s finest. We’re policewomen.”

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