Peter Rodgers Organization
Original Run: October 1957-July 7 1958
If you’re a casual TV watcher like me then you always believed that “Police Woman” with Angie Dickinson or “Get Christie Love!” with Teresa Graves were the first network TV shows to feature a woman as a police officer. But that was before I stumbled on the 1957 TV series DECOY. It’s on Amazon Prime. I found it while watching another series; “Yancy Derringer” and don’t think that some of you so-and-so’s aren’t going to get who laid the rails from me because you know how much I would love to watch a series like “Yancy Derringer” and you knew all this time it was out there and didn’t tell me. But once I found it, I shared it with my wife Patricia and we got into the habit of watching three or four episodes before we called it a night. And then we discovered DECOY and that’s a whole other story I’ll get into now.
Beverly Garland is Patricia “Casey” Jones, a policewoman with the NYPD. She doesn’t work out of a specific precinct…just the “Police Department” and she rarely has the same boss or other officers she works with from episode to episode. Improbable as this may seem it works in the context of the series as it takes full advantage of filming on location in New York in the 1950’s. One episode would have Casey going undercover in a bar in Brooklyn looking for drug dealers and the next episode would have her in Staten Island looking for a missing husband whose daughter seemed more interested her getting her daddy back than the wife was in getting her husband. One episode would have Casey in Greenwich Village trying to solve a double murder. One really memorable episode has Casey forced to stay in a midtown Manhattan hotel going bark-for-bite with Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s mom) as a gun moll protecting her boyfriend. Between the two of them there isn’t a stick of scenery left unchewed.
The thing that really surprises me about this series? It’s set in the 1950s but it’s pretty progressive in its stories. Casey is treated as a professional by her superiors and male co-workers. They listen to her advice and when she asks for a free hand to work a case, her bosses let her do so without second guessing her. If they do have doubts it’s not because she’s a woman. Her cases all deal with women and most of them she resolves not by killing the bad guy but by gathering evidence from things she hears and sees and then reporting them to her superiors and then proper arrests can be made. People are killed in DECOY but when they are, it’s not a gratuitious killing. Oftentimes Casey talks to the women involved and persuades them their life would be much better off by separating themselves from the toxic men in their life.
And not that the men are all portrayed as evil, dirty, rotten scum. One of the virtues of DECOY is that it attempts to get into the heads of the men as well as the women. One episode is about a man who leaves home, abandoning his wife and child. Not because of crime. But because he wants to be an artist and feels he can’t provide for a family by pursuing his art. In the episode where Casey has to protect Diane Ladd from her murderous boyfriend Casey has to confront her own feelings as to why she feels compelled to save women who have no desire to save themselves.
Another bonus of DECOY is that like a lot of 1950s and 1960s TV series, we get to see a whole lot of talented actors before they became stars. Check it out. I’ve already mentioned Diane Ladd. We’ve also got Martin Balsam, Simon Oakland, Edward Asner, Barbara Barrie ( I scared the hell out of Patricia when upon seeing her I screamed “Holy shit, that’s Barney Miller’s wife!”) Grandpa Munster himself, Al Lewis playing a sleazy nightclub owner, Peter Falk, Larry Hagman, Lois Nettleton, Suzanne Pleshette and that isn’t half of who guest-stars on the show.
Beverly Garland is terrific as Casey Jones as she has to hold just about every scene in every episode. It’s the rare episode where we don’t see what’s going on through her eyes and her voice and that’s emphasized by her turning to us at the end of every episode, breaking the fourth wall and giving us her final thoughts on the episode we’ve just watched. The thoughts are usually poignant, emotional and philosophical. Casey Jones may not have a personal life outside of her job but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an internal life.
One of the subtle things I appreciated about Beverly Garland’s characterization of Casey Jones is that as the series progresses, we see her smoke cigarettes more and more with increasing frequency as the emotional strain of the job affects her. Given the Standards and Practices of that day, I imagine there was limited ways that Miss Garland could show that the stress of the job was affecting her character. She certainly couldn’t do it through drinking or sex. But she did it by smoking. If you watch the series and I certainly recommend that you do so notice how in the first episode you’ll see Casey smoke maybe one or two cigarettes. By the time you get to the 10th episode, she’s got a cigarette in her hand in almost every scene.
Her acting simply has to be seen to be believed as in every episode Casey has to go undercover and pretend to be somebody else and she does so with such ease that’s it’s a testament to the acting talent of Beverly Garland that in one episode she can play a snooty high society dame and in the next a Skid Row hooker. It also says something about the character of Casey Jones that she can take on these wildly different personas which such ease.
DECOY is one of those surprises I run across that makes my wife and I glad we kick out the extra money for Amazon Prime. It works as a cultural artifact. You want you see how New York looked back in the 1950s? How people dressed and how attitudes toward women in various levels of society were treated in the 1950s? You just want to see a well-made police procedural featuring a positive, progressive female character made in the 1950s? Then if you’ve got Amazon Prime, watch DECOY.
You can find a more comprehensive review of DECOY at BRIAN CAMP’S FILM AND ANIME BLOG. I highly recommend you checking it out.