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.”