In the wake of 'Wonder Woman's' success, try TV's first policewoman in 'Decoy'

Posted June 7

As has been noted elsewhere, it’s a very good thing that “Wonder Woman” did so well at the box office last weekend.

This may indeed force a shift in the thinking of (male) Hollywood moguls who have argued that women — and especially female superheroes — can’t “open” a movie (show-biz parlance for pulling in a sizeable audience on the first weekend).

Or at least women who aren’t Jennifer Lawrence in a movie with “Hunger Games” in the title.

So look for more Wonder Woman movies, and perhaps reboots of films starring Elektra, Catwoman and maybe even Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff — played by Scarlett Johansson as a supporting character in no less than five Marvel blockbusters about male superheroes. (After all, Johansson has already demonstrated her take-charge abilities in two non-Marvel leading roles, “Lucy” and “Ghost in the Shell.”)

But what about heroic women that aren’t so super, that is, those without super powers and outside of the fantasy or horror or science fiction genres — a female John McClane (“Die Hard”) or Ethan Hunt (“Mission: Impossible”) or Jason Bourne?

There have been quite a few serious, or semi-serious, action movies led by women over the years, including “Salt,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “G.I. Jane” and “Kill Bill,” among others. And some have performed well at the worldwide box office. But none has led to an ongoing franchise, something that’s long overdue.

TV does it better, and perhaps the strongest example right now is the long-running “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” with Mariska Hargitay as Detective Olivia Benson, who will begin her 19th season in the fall.

And the strongest examples historically remain “Police Woman” in the 1970s and “Cagney & Lacey” in the 1980s.

Both of those shows are often cited as game changers, but the game doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.

Then there was “Decoy,” starring Beverly Garland, a police procedural that aired in syndication during the 1957-58 season.

Say what, you ask?

That the one-season “Decoy” is largely forgotten today is something the DVD label Film Chest is attempting to correct with the release of a three-disc set that includes all 39 half-hour, black and white episodes, along with a 16-page booklet that chronicles each one and cites New York locations where they were filmed. (The booklet also claims that this was the first dramatic TV series with a female protagonist.)

Whether the producers of “Police Woman” were aware of “Decoy” is, of course, up for debate, but there are undeniable similarities between Angie Dickinson’s Suzanne “Pepper” Anderson in the former and Beverly Garland’s Patricia “Casey” Jones in the latter.

Both shows require their stars to go undercover as mob molls, junkies, showgirls and prison inmates, among other assignments. But where Dickinson exuded sex appeal in the free-and-easy ’70s, Garland is more by the book in the conservative ’50s, and the show’s matter-of-fact approach owes something to “Dragnet,” right down to her voiceover narration.

Garland is the star and Casey is the only regular character in “Decoy” — unless you count New York City as a character. Outdoor locations abound as Casey bounces from vice to homicide to various precincts, and the city is definitely a vibrant part of the show, from Central Park to Grand Central Station to the Brooklyn Bridge to Radio City Music Hall, and many more familiar Manhattan stops.

Garland is terrific, sympathetic and compassionate, yet tough when she needs to be, and, though this may be surprising given the era, her male colleagues never talk down to her or make sexist remarks.

Now that’s breaking ground.

Although there are a few episodes of “Decoy” floating around on cheapjack public domain discs in DVD bins at dollar stores, the show has never had a sanctioned release until now.

And it holds up remarkably well. In fact, in some ways “Decoy” feels less dated than “Police Woman.”

If Garland’s name rings a bell, it’s probably as a 1950s B-movie scream queen (“It Conquered the World,” “Not of This Earth”) or as a TV mom in the early 1970s (on the last three seasons of “My Three Sons”).

The latter also gave her a second career of sorts, as Garland went on to play Kate Jackson’s mother on “The Scarecrow and Mrs. King” (1983-87) and Teri Hatcher’s mother on “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (1995-97).

She also starred in quite a few genre B-movies in the 1950s and ’60s (mostly creature features, crime melodramas and Westerns) and played guest-star roles on dozens of popular TV shows from the 1950s through the 1990s.

Garland died in 2008 at the age of 82.

But as a young-and-hungry actress in 1950s New York, Garland somehow managed to land the lead role in “Decoy,” a forgotten-but-shouldn’t-be TV series that is historically significant, very entertaining and well worth checking out.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.


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