A RIP-ROARING 'CAGNEY, LACEY'

"May the angels lead you to paradise," says a Catholic priest, gently concluding his graveside eulogy.

Tonight is the night that Christine Cagney's alcoholic father dies. Charlie Cagney falls and hits his head. Too drunk to get up or call for help, he lies on the floor of his apartment and bleeds to death.

Always interesting, often heroic and occasionally brilliant, "Cagney & Lacey" rarely softens edges in portraying two female police detectives whose complex personal lives are usually more compelling than the cases on which they work. You expect good work from "Cagney & Lacey."

But tonight's and next Monday's season-ending episodes (airing at 10 p.m. on Channels 2 and 8) are up there in the stratosphere, two hours of simply rip-roaring, absolutely devastating, standing-ovation television. And what acting by Sharon Gless as Christine!

"Cagney & Lacey" has never been better--or uglier.

The ever-plastered Charlie checks out tonight. Then, next week, the distraught, compulsive, obsessive, drink-binging Christine has a crackup from which recovery will surely be agonizing. And see you next fall.

The CBS series has been building toward a screeching crescendo of father/daughter alcoholism for some time, their days of Scotch and roses gaining increased, more focused exposure since this season's arrival of supervising producers Jonathan Estrin and Shelley List.

Charlie was an easy call as being hard-core tipsy, but Christine's subtler social drinking also gradually evolved into destructive, full-blown drunkenness as she became her father's co-alcoholic.

Like detectives themselves, in fact, the show's producers have charted Christine's obsessive behavior and dependence on drink to 1983, as if her alcoholism crept up on them as it did on her.

So much for those once-routine staples of TV drama: the funny drunk, the wet bar in everyone's living room and the gratuitous, harmless guzzling of cocktails as a substitute for dialogue. The real world is nastier.

Tonight's episode opens optimistically with Cagney's partner, Mary Beth Lacey, rescuing an infant from a car moments before it explodes--the saving of life set against the subsequent squandering of life, hope paired with hopelessness, renewal with boozy death.

Charlie's body is discovered by Christine, who frantically tries to breathe life into his lungs, pleading with him to live, just as she had begged him to stop drinking.

The story shows life's clashing colors and patterns, the contradictions and paradoxes, one drunk worrying about the drinking of another, the alternating tenderness and sharpness that give relationships texture.

Lingering aromas of booze and death surround Christine, leavened by moments of dark humor. At the cemetery, she and Mary Beth take a right turn at the Garden of Tranquility to reach the Garden of Hope, where Charlie is to be buried.

Mary Beth's high times--she reaps glory and commendations for her dramatic rescue--are matched by Christine's lows. Christine is still full of her father, sifting through his cluttered apartment, playing his favorite record on his stereo, hearing his voice on the answering machine, drinking his liquor, sinking into a drunken, self-pitying stupor, showing up for work smashed and abusive, her lost days becoming lost weekends.

This is grueling but exquisite TV. The credit goes to director Sharron Miller; Georgia Jeffries, who wrote tonight's episode, and Estrin and List, who wrote the concluding installment.

And Gless just acts her heart out, taking Cagney right to the 100-proof edge, at once savage and childishly simpering, enraged and weak, aching for Charlie and also hating him--a fall-down drunk reeking of whiskey and gagging on her own vomit. There may have been better acting on TV this season, but nothing comes to mind.

It's Gless' show, and she runs around the block with it. But Tyne Daly does her usual fine work as the compassionate, lecturing, mothering Lacey, and the supporting cast performs ably. The only lamentable thing about tonight's hour is that it rings down the curtain on Dick O'Neill, the pudding-cheeked actor who plays Charlie.

Nice guy, Charlie--amusing and spirited when he wasn't mean from booze. But his liver was shot, making his death inevitable and Christine's suffering a natural aftermath.

Above all, the writers are straight with their audience. No magic remedies, cheap sentiment or manipulative tricks. No cliffhanger, either. The ending is an honest one, offering only hope, not angels or paradise.

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