Recommended to Fans Of: "Homicide"and "The Wire"
Years: First it was a radio show, then it moved to TV for 276 half-hour black-and-white episodes from 1951-1959. Many years later, in 1967, it returned for four final seasons in color.
Creator: Jack Webb
Stars: Jack Webb, Frank Smith
The Concept: Gritty police procedural, shot on film in a starkly-lit film noir style. Sgt. Joe Friday and various partners solve crimes for the LAPD, with the details based on actual cases.
How it Came to be Underrated: My generation thinks it knows all about “Dragnet”, thanks to the zany 1988 Dan Ackroyd / Tom Hanks movie version, and the satirical portrayal of the show in L.A. Confidential. These created a totally false impression. Even the ‘60s version, which we got to see through "Nick at Night" reruns, was both campier and stodgier than the original show. By that point, Webb’s Eisenhower-Republican politics had fallen out of favor, and so he allowed the show to become a generation-clash broadside, featuring a lot of “bust the hippies” episodes. People who only know that version owe it to themselves to check out the original, which, in addition to being more morally complex, is amazingly gritty.
Sample Episode: 2.19, The Big Break
Writer: James E. Moser
The Story: Detective Friday and his partner catch a hold-up man in a tense raid. Months later, they hear that he’s escaped from jail, so they stake out his home all day, only to hear that he was caught across town hours ago. A year later, they hear that he’s been parolled into the army. He even stops by and borrows ten bucks from each of them for a night on the town! Then they realize that he’s actually on the lam again, having been put in army prison and broken out. They find him again and finally put him away for good.
Why It’s Great:
- “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” To this day, everybody knows that opening spiel, but most people don’t realize that they meant it. This show is shockingly realistic. Read that plot synopsis. This show is messy. On “Law and Order” (which I love), they delve into moral quandries, but they’re doing so in a very idealized version of reality. Those detectives never say “well, it’s 5 o’clock now so let’s go home”, or “let’s drop that case for awhile and work on something more promising.” On this show, they say that stuff all the time. Webb is downright obsessed with showing the quotidian absurdities of a cop’s life, even if those details sometimes make them look foolish and/or callous.
- The synopsis of this episode might seem to fit the show’s right-wing reputation: A criminal works the system, gets out over and over and makes a mockery of the cops’ sympathies. But the actual episode doesn’t create that feeling at all. Instead of denouncing the cops’gullibility, the whole point seems to be to praise them for the shred of credulous humanity they still maintain, even in this brutal job.
- The 1988 movie, made by veterans of the counterculture, chose to portray Joe Friday as a pseudo-fascist, who became a cop because he was naturally merciless. On the actual show, the opposite is true. Dealing with crooks has certainly made Webb’s Friday unsentimental in his affect, but he’s maintaining that distance precisely so that he can remain open to listening to the pleas of suspects.
- Likewise, the other phrase everybody knows, “Just the facts”, seems cruel when taken out of context, indicating a lack of empathy for the human element, but in Webb’s hands it’s merely a scalpel for cutting to the truth. Joe listens to lies all day, but his job demands that he not turn away. Not until “Hill Street Blues” would there be another show that captured how absurdly hard that job could be.
How Available Is It?: Netflix has a 5-disc “best of” for the original series, featuring 25 episodes.
But Don’t Take My Word For It: Embedding is once again disabled, and they made me watch a Yoplait ad first, but the whole episode can eventually be watched for free on YouTube here.