DEAR DETECTIVE with Brenda Vaccaro
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DEAR DETECTIVE
by
Cary O'Dell

If there one thing that TV loves, it’s a trend.  And while it’s a bit disheartening to view the rise of the modern feminist movement (i.e. feminism’s “Second Wave”) as a “trend,” network TV of the 1970s certainly saw it as one and--probably for better--attempted to make the most of it.

Not long after the rise of so-called “women’s libbers” who took to the streets and (allegedly) burned their bras, the big three networks began airing programming specifically meant for them.

Comedy-wise they did well with various sitcoms focusing on unmarried, independent women with, of course, “Mary Tyler Moore” as the great torch bearer. 

Drama, though, proved a tougher challenge.

Get Christie Love adStill, 1974 was surely a unique, banner year.  That season saw the launch of three hour-long cop dramas all built around able, smart and unmarried female protagonists (who also just happened to be really attractive too).  That season saw the debut of “Police Woman” with Angie Dickinson, “Get Christie Love!” with Teresa Graves and “Amy Prentiss” with Jessica Walter. 

Though all three dramas were hard-hitting and mature, in keeping with a lot of 1970s TV, Walter’s series (a spin-off of “Ironside”) was probably the most serious and, surprising or not, also the most short-lived.  Though Walter would go on to win an Emmy for her work in the series, it was cancelled after only a handful of episodes.

Still, to their credit, the networks didn’t give up and, in 1975, CBS launched Anne Meara in the gritty and unglamorized series “Kate McShane.”  “Kate” was not a detective, she was a crusading attorney.  But, sadly, this series was only slightly more successful than “Amy Prentiss” had been; “Kate” was cancelled after only nine episodes.  (More successful that year was the debut of Lynda Carter’s “Wonder Woman” with its ability to appeal to men, women, boys and girls.)

Learning from the success of “Police Woman,” the networks quickly learned that the way to ensure a successful series with a female lead was to give female viewers someone with which to identify but to also include just enough eye candy to make sure that guys tuned in too.  Hence, in 1976, ABC brought in the powerhouse that was “Charlie’s Angels.”  (The bicentennial year also saw the arrival of “The Bionic Woman.”)

But 1976 also brought in a crime-free, hour-long drama with a female lead.  And it was a Western! 

SARA with Brenda VaccaroBrenda Vacarro debuted in ’76 on CBS as schoolmarm Sara Yarnell in the series “Sara.”  Set in the Independence, Colorado in the 1870s, Sara was sort of the educational answer to TV’s later “Dr. Quinn.” 

Strong-willed and fair-minded, when Sara arrived in town she stuck up for new books for her students and better treatment of a “half-breed” who was enrolled in her school, among other rather woke causes.  But, unfortunately, if mixing women with police work on TV was a tough sell to audiences, packaging them at the center of the Western wasn’t much better.  “Sara” departed the airwaves after just 12 episodes.

But after “Sara’s” demise, CBS was not ready to give up on its star, Brenda Vaccaro.

Vaccaro was born in Brooklyn and raised in Texas and, in keeping with those environments, her performances were usually pretty big and loud too.  After paying her dues on the stage and in some small TV roles, Vaccaro made a major splash in her first major film role, in the Academy Award-winning “Midnight Cowboy.” 

For the next few years, Vacarro would alternate between big screen roles and various juicy, rather high-profile TV appearances, including a multi-episode arc on “The Streets of San Francisco.”  (She and series star Michael Douglas were romantically involved at one time.)

After “Sara,” it took about two years for her to return to her own self-starring series.  “Dear Detective” was the product of two TV producers Dean Hargrove and Roland Kibbee both, at the time, enjoying some great small screen success; they had, previously, brought to the airwaves “Barney Miller” and had also worked on “Columbo.”  For this series, the duo drew their inspiration, very heavily, from a 1977 French film whose title translates to “Dear Inspector.” 

DEAR DETECTIVE with Brenda VaccaroIn fact, the pilot film of “Dear Detective” is a very close carbon copy of the theatrical “Dear Inspector” re-written ever so slightly.

In the series, Vaccaro starred as Detective Sgt. Kate Hudson, a well-liked and respected member of the LA police squad who is also a single mom.  As in “Dear Inspector,” in the program’s first episode, Kate literally bumps into an old flame, a professor of Greek Lit who teaches at UCLA.  A refreshingly mature romance begins to bloom.

If that’s a unique take on love for TV at the time (or even now), so too is the respect that Detective Hudson has among her all-male staff.  In fact, they almost seem to pamper her.  Years later, “Cagney & Lacey” would wish they had it so good.  And, realistic or not, “Dear D.’s” take on a more adult and civil workplace is a highly welcomed one.

The show’s pilot, which introduces Kate and her new beau (played by Arlen Dean Snyder) also saddles our heroine with a serial killer knocking off local officials with an ice pick being his weapon of choice!

Of course, by the end of the film, Det. Kate solves the case…and has a new boyfriend. 

The original French film the “Dear” is based upon pulled off the trick of being both funny and suspenseful and, obviously, it was a mix that the US’s “Dear Detective” wanted to follow.  Unfortunately, such a smash-up, so well done in shows like James Garner’s “Rockford Files” they made it look easy, was not an effortless balancing act to achieve.  And, sadly, in “Dear Detective’s” debut film/first episode, the switch between detective work and humor was often jarring, upsetting the program’s overall tone.

But this is was not a fault of the show’s leading lady.  If anyone could pull of this combo it’s Vaccaro who has never failed to be likable on camera. 

 

Early reviews for the series—which bowed on CBS on Wednesday, March 28, 1979—certainly singled her out not only for her performance (“warmth” and “intelligence” being the most employed words to describe it) but also for the “realistic” looking woman she was bringing to the airwaves.  And legendary TV critic Marvin Kitman called the show the “best I seen since ‘Kojak.’”  

But, except for those kudos, the series got little praise from the critics.  The biggest complaint seeming to be the show’s extreme copy-catting of the series from the French film, noting that it was not only lazy on the producers’ part not to create something fresh but also to not better adapt the series to American sensibilities.

Perhaps, with time, the show could have found its balance and forged its own identity.  But, alas, time was not on this detective’s side.  “Dear Detective” would only last a grand total of four episodes as either the show was too esoteric, had far too little time on the air or just didn’t have enough of a cross-gender appeal.

The need to appeal to male viewers at this time in TV history should not be undervalued.  It was a longtime maxim of the TV industry (one with more than a little truth to it) that, back when most households had only one TV, mom controlled the dial in daytime, the kids had it in late afternoon and early evening and dad had control in primetime.  Hence it was to the guys that the TV networks most often had to appeal—whether they wanted to or not.

Before its final installment, though, on “Dear Detective’s” second episode Kate would get to go undercover as a nurse to ferret out one criminal and, in the fourth and final episode, she would assist her new professor beau when he got accused of a crime he didn’t commit.

(By the way, also not faring that well that season was another hour-long, female detective series, Kate Mulgrew in “Mrs. Columbo,” a series that went through a series of titles--“Kate Columbo,” “Kate Loves a Mystery”--and incarnations before ending after 13 episodes.)

After the end of “Dear Detective,” Vaccaro gave up, mostly, on leading her own series though she would continue to appear in various roles on both the big and small screen, including highly-acclaimed roles in the film “The Mirror Has Two Faces” and the cable telefilm “You Don’t Know Jack.”

As for women, as a solo star, in hour-long police dramas, “Police Woman” would be on the beat until 1978.  Then we’d have to wait a full decade before TV tried again.  Luckily, they tried again with “Cagney & Lacey.”

 

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Brenda Vaccaro in Dear Detective

 

 

 

 

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