Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Friday on My Mind: Dragnet

NOTE: This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.


 
Authority figures – particularly police officers – make a lot of us nervous. We may not be doing anything wrong but the moment we spot a police cruiser in our rear view mirror, it’s hard not to tense up.

I have always had a contentious relationship with authority, so it might seem surprising that I love Dragnet so much. But I think if all police officers were more like Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and Officer Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan), only criminals would shun the police. The rest of us would want to buy them a cup of coffee and thank them for their service.

Dragnet is not a show about the cool renegade cops who “play by their own rules.” It’s not an action-packed series with tire-screeching car chases and guns blazing. It’s a meticulous, dialogue-driven series about two middle-aged LA police officers (played by actors whose faces will never grace a poster on a teenage girl’s wall) who show up for work every day and do their best to serve the city that pays their salary. 



From 1967 to 1970, viewers tuned in to watch Friday and Gannon solve the most routine cases, while wearing the same drab suits in almost every episode. They ran down leads that didn’t pan out. They sat at their desks filling out reports. They made awkward small talk until the boss called them into his office.

Why was this so compelling? I think it starts with the authenticity and attention to detail that Jack Webb insisted on in his depiction of cops at work. Dragnet humanized the men who wear the badge, and made them admirable not because of super-heroic deeds, but through their decency, compassion and dedication.

This was also a series that sounded like nothing else on television. The unique staccato rhythm of the dialogue was often parodied in its day – some readers might remember a famous skit on The Tonight Show featuring Webb and Johnny Carson, and some missing copper clappers. 



But it was a technique that worked, and when Friday would launch into one of his speeches about the importance of respecting the law, or the privilege of being a police officer, you feel like getting up from the couch and applauding.

One of the show’s best moments occurred in an episode called “The Big Interrogation,” when a rookie cop (played by future Adam-12 star Kent McCord) is wrongfully accused of robbing a liquor store. Friday’s moving monologue on the policeman’s life should be required viewing at every police academy graduation. 



It’s no wonder that real cops felt tremendous respect for Jack Webb, and the honor he brought to their profession. The Los Angeles Police Department actually retired Friday’s badge number – 714 – to acknowledge his contribution to the law enforcement community.

Viewers, too, wished more cops were like Friday. During the show’s original run the LAPD frequently received calls asking to speak to Sgt. Friday. The response was always the same: “Sorry, it’s Joe’s day off.” 


15 comments:

  1. A favourite of mine from both its incarnations. Even as a youngster I was impressed that Jack Webb was the boss behind the scenes as well as an actor.

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  2. Though the 1967-70 version of Dragnet pales in comparison to the earlier TV run (1951-59) (not to mention the radio show), I rarely change the channel when a rerun comes on. The show can really make me giggle, because I look past the "crime drama" aspect and see a love story - a romance between a man and The Law.

    When Dragnet had its lengthy stint on Nick at Nite a friend of mine and I used to imitate Friday and Gannon's habit of nodding at one another while we watched the show. Really used to break our friends up.

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  3. Like Ivan, I prefer the original version, in which Friday was a lot edgier, but I've always enjoyed the revival as well. And the Tonight Show parody is priceless!

    I've often wondered just what "Joe Friday" (or Jack Webb, for that matter) would think of the LAPD today.

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  4. Interesting comments. Ivan - I can see how the show's earnestness can be fodder for comedy – certainly Nick at Nite played up on that in its promos. But unlike 'Batman' which is clearly camp, the '60s Dragnet still works as a straight police procedural, even with those repetitive elements that would inspire a drinking game.

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  5. The 1967-70 version of DRAGNET is the one I'm most familiar with--having watched it as a kid. With its fact-based stories, it was sort of a precursor to today's reality shows like COPS. Only it was more tasteful! I love your description of the show's "unique staccato rhythm of the dialogue." And, indeed, it was very different from other cop shows of that era. Also, who can forget that hand, hammer, and chisel finishing off the "Mark VII Limited" logo at the end of each show. In fact, it's so famous that I found it on YouTube! Great pick, David, for the Me-TV blogathon.

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    1. Thanks for reading! It's been fun getting to know everyone else's work through the blogathon.

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  6. I'm another who thinks the 50s version of DRAGNET is the best, and it would be great if Me-TV would air it. There are public domain DVDS available, but quality isn't great, and they tend to have the same 20 or so episodes (out of 276 produced!). That said, the 60s version was still worthy, and I agree with the author about "The Big Interrogation" episode.

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    1. I'd by some quality 50s sets on DVD if they ever came out. At least Shout! picked up the rest of the '60s series- and of course we still have Me-TV when we need a fix.

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  7. Dragnet was one of my father's favorite shows. He got a kick out of Webb, and I remember watching the show with him. This brought back a few memories.

    Btw, I love the layout of your blog. It's simple but pleasing.

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    1. Thanks, Amanda! I appreciate the kind words.

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  8. David, Your post does a super job of capturing the essence of the Dragnet series and the unique style that defined Sgt. Joe Friday. I always liked the classic opening: "The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent."

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  9. Thanks for writing this essay. It's a great reminder of what's good about Dragnet.

    Watching Bill pull out some weird food concoction for his lunch still drives me crazy--Joe had more patience with him than I could ever endure.

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    1. Those comedy moments always played so awkward to me, but these were not characters very polished in their small talk. No one ever had more to say about wallpaper than Bill Gannon. :)

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  10. Nice post! I have to admit, I enjoy the 1960s version of Dragnet primarily at the campy level--but I do enjoy it! The old-time radio incarnation is my favorite when I'm looking for realistic crime drama.

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