“This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I work here, I’m a cop.”
“Just the facts, ma’am.” Today I’ll be reviewing the great progenitor of all TV cop shows, Dragnet.Dragnet’s origins were actually in a syndicated radio program with a similar format and also starring Jack Webb. Set in the city of Los Angeles, Dragnet follows Detective Sgt. Joe Friday as he tackles cases (mostly) taken from police archives.
The show typically concentrates on one primary case, but will show police work peripherally connected such as bookings, mugshots, misdemeanor cases and lineups. This shoes that the LAPD of Dragnet is a working department with a range of issues to deal with. The show also deals with the personal life of the main characters. Often showing the stresses that are unique to police work. At the conclusion of the episode, after announcing that the names in the show have been changed, the fate of this week’s wrongdoers is displayed just before the credits roll.
One thing that really helps the show is that many of the episodes were based on real crimes and have a grounding in reality that is lacking in many modern shows that seem to think they need a Hannibal Lector or Professor Moriarty every season to keep the show exciting. While professional criminals make appearances in Dragnet, a fair number of the people caught up in the Dragnet are small time troublemakers or ordinary people caught up in circumstances. This street level view of police work is refreshing.
Minor quibbles against the show include, an overuse of narrative voiceover (common in programs at the time), occasionally stagey sets and sometimes inconsistent acting, especially in earlier seasons. Also, you sometimes get a “haven’t I seen this before?” feel to some of the episodes. Most of these issues can be explained by the relative newness of the television genre. Most of the shows at the time were literally writing the operating manual as they worked.
For the most part, the main characters and especially Jack Webb (Detective Sgt. Joe Friday) are consistently good. The number of celebrity guest stars, especially in the later seasons, is surprisingly high and shows the popularity of the show.
The visuals are good, almost all the episodes from the 1950s are shot in black and white. Only a few holiday episodes are in color. There are some very nice shots in the show, especially the street views of 1950s LA and the aerial camera work at the start of some of the episodes.
The soundtrack is surprisingly good for early television, moody and highly atmospheric. Of course, I couldn’t review the show without mentioning the iconic (and distinctive) opening. People who have never even seen the show can often recognize that 4 note opening and even quote the lines that follow.
This shows Dragnet’s impressive staying power. It’s legacy includes 2 television shows, one in 1967 with some of the original cast and another in 2003.
3 stars out of 5 While some elements of the show have not aged well, Dragnet was literally the great grandfather of all modern police shows. It’s surprising how many elements in modern shows from forensics, computers, the war on drugs, troubled teens, statistical analysis, were all covered in this show over 60 years ago. It’s influence on subsequent television shows is unmistakable.