The last time we saw U.S. Marshal Mary Shannon on In Plain Sight, she was caressed by a golden-hued light and snuggling in the arms of her new paramour, FBI Agent Michael Faber, on the balcony of their beachfront Mexican hotel room. The scene was so atypical for the tough-talking, brash character, it seemed almost like a dream sequence—you half expected that at any minute everything would snap back into focus and Mary would wake up in her own bed.
But, when viewers tune in for Sunday’s Season 4 premiere on USA, they will discover that it was not a dream: Mary did, in fact, hook up. And they will learn, like Mary McCormack, the actress who plays her, Mary’s gotten knocked up.
The pregnancy has presented the actress with a great opportunity to examine Mary from another angle. “How do you stay true to who you are, if you are really passionate about your work–-which Mary Shannon is—how do you make everything come together?” said the actress in a telephone interview from the set in New Mexico.
You would think that more cop shows would handle this work/life question in a way suited for 2011 and not 1965. It seems that on our televisions, there’s a parade of sexy and smart female detectives, cops, and FBI agents who are inexplicably single and tortured about it. Depicted by the writers as sad sacks, it is implied that they are throwing away their prime babymaking years while solving the rapes and murders of beautiful young girls, while they get absolutely no action. From the widowed and forlorn Detective Alex Eames (Kathryn Erbe) on Law & Order: Criminal Intent to the driven, lonely police superintendant played by Jennifer Beals on The Chicago Code, the women of law enforcement on TV frequently get short shrift.
After all: What kind of world is it when the smoking hot Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) from Law & Order: SVU can’t get a date?
An unbelievable one, says Anna Holmes, founder of feminist website Jezebel (and Daily Beast contributor), of Detective Benson. “She just seems to be without certain needs. And I just don’t buy that.”
If you believe the TV writers of the world, being a woman in law enforcement means you are stacked with issues higher than the Empire State Building. Detective Lilly Rush of Cold Case, pretty and sharp (though we must not speak of her hair), had a series-long flirtation with the ADA that never really bore out; other relationships ended when the boyfriend got jealous of her career.
“That’s maybe a marker for a female character that she has internal problems,” said Holmes. “Whereas for a male character, I don’t think society sees a single man as problematic inherently.”
“Maybe that’s just old-school thinking about women who are professionals and can’t be soft and can’t be intimate and have a fuller life. They have to be either/or,” said McCormack of her fellow female TV cops.
It’s hard not to be bugged by the extremely overdressed women on CSI, CSI: Miami, and Without a Trace who only seem to date their coworkers or, worse, bosses.
That scenario—choose love or work—replays itself on the new AMC drama, The Killing. Seattle detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) is set to get married and move to California, but gets called into a murder on the day of her departure. Though it’s only five days into the investigation, her fiance sulks while he waits for her and her son to arrive in California, before relenting and coming back to Seattle.
Like In Plain Sight’s Shannon, there are exceptions to the lonely female law-enforcement officer—Kyra Sedgwick’s character Brenda Johnson on The Closer is happily married (to her patient husband Fritz Howard). On the recently ended Medium, Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette) had a great marriage, but one that was constantly tested by the trials of her work.
Still it’s hard not to be bugged by the extremely overdressed women on CSI, CSI: Miami, and Without a Trace who only seem to date their coworkers or, worse, bosses. And the most hypersexualized female detective of them all, Debra Morgan on Dexter, has been rewarded for her active dating life with a bundle of bad luck: One true love turned out to be a serial killer. Another was murdered by a serial killer’s daughter. Yep. Nice.
Reality check: In 2011, do real female officers of the law really have to pick work over love?
An actual NCIS division chief, Dorian Van Horn, says no. She’s been married for 18 years, and has three kids. She met her husband five or six years into her time at the agency, and said: “My husband is very supportive. He’s moved twice for my career.”
(The depiction of women on the crime beat on TV shows is, not surprisingly, not very accurate in more than one way: “The thing that’s kind of the most irritating is that they all have these big boobs and low-cut blouses, and you can’t wear that,” said Van Horn. “Remember Cagney and Lacey? They actually looked like real women and they had real problems.”)
That’s not to say the challenge of melding the high-stress, high-powered job with a family life isn’t difficult and without sacrifice.
“I’ve missed dance class, and Cub Scouts because I work violent crime—and violent crime doesn’t happen Tuesday at 11 o’clock in the morning, it happens when the bars close,” she said. “Next week I’m traveling and I’m going to miss my son’s baseball game and I’m devastated. Because that’s important, and I’ll never get that back.”
In her agency, most of the women are married, she said, and only one or two are still single—the ratio not so different than any other career.
There are lone wolfs, too. Port Hueneme (California) Police Chief Kathleen Sheehan has been married and divorced three times—though she says, she wouldn’t peg any of the divorces on her career. But, for her, the career is more interesting, anyway.
“I’ve gotten to do things that so few women do. I’ve worked in Pakistan, and Israel, and Indonesia and Dubai and South L.A. I’ve had an amazing life,” said Sheehan, who also trains cops in foreign countries. “It’s like an addiction. How many people get a front row seat on life? How many people get to really touch lives and have this kind of variety? Every day. One minute it’s a huge charity fundraiser, the next minute it’s helping a victim of sexual abuse, the next time it’s arresting a gang member. It’s a wonderful life. It’s everything they try to show on television, but it gets to really happen to me.”
It’s a telling sign that when you ask Sheehan about the cops on TV, she doesn’t have an opinion. “I don’t have time. I’m working.”
She may not know it, but Sheehan’s got that much in common with the woman who plays her TV doppelganger— McCormack, who, between filming In Plain Sight and raising her two young children, also doesn’t have time to watch other cop shows (though she confesses to watching reality TV). Still, she knows that In Plain Sight is different. “When I first read the pilot, I loved that you saw a bunch of sides of her life. I had this home life—as troubled as it was, I really did appreciate that you saw she was a whole person,” said McCormack.
And, though Mary had a failed engagement, the breakup was mutual and grown up; don’t count Mary Shannon as one of spinsters. “She has a full life and family and she does date and we’ve seen her dating. She has tried to be in an intimate relationship, maybe with the wrong guy, but certainly doing it,” she said.
As the season progresses, McCormack says her character will struggle with her pending motherhood, and the upheaval that comes with an unexpected pregnancy. She wrestles with whether to keep the baby and with her growing girth (“I can’t fit my holster over my pregnancy jeans,” she said).
Perhaps, eventually, Mary Shannon will begin to have a more harmonious personal life. Most likely, her path will be just as rocky and interesting as ever. But, we can take comfort in one fact: at least she has one.
Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry, " The Sober Bunch."