It’s tempting to believe the times we’re in now are the most divisive in America’s history, but they aren’t really. Which is not to say all is well, or that one cannot be astonished on a daily basis by the behavior of some of our fellow citizens. But we’ve been here before, most recently in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I watch television shows from that era almost every day, most of which opted to ignore current events and provide Americans with a temporary escape from grim headlines. However, there were a few series that commented on the way things were, from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to The Mod Squad. After the events of this past week and the heated discussions they generated, the show that kept returning to my memory was “Elegy For a Pig,” a season 3 episode of Adam-12 that first aired in 1970.
This was the time when the counter-culture began its ascendance into mainstream culture, and no one in television tried harder to keep that revolution at bay than Jack Webb. Through Dragnet and Adam-12, the pioneering producer and director expressed his profound respect for the men and women in law enforcement, and his disdain for those that disparaged them.
His accounts were rarely subtle. But there was a sincerity to Sgt. Joe Friday’s impassioned speeches that was undeniably appealing. Check out the number of views on YouTube for two of his most famous moments in “The Big Interrogation” and “The Big Departure.” Many of the comments suggest that such sentiments resonate more today than they did 50 years ago.
Webb did not appear on Adam-12 but you’ll hear his voice introducing this show (“For the next 30 minutes, ‘Elegy For a Pig’”), something that happened only twice in 174 series episodes. There is no theme music or opening credits sequence, an indication that this will be a different viewing experience.
In the opening seconds, police officer Tom Porter is shot and killed by a fleeing suspect that is quickly apprehended. Porter is played by Mark Goddard, best known for Lost in Space. But you’ll never hear him speak in the episode – the story is told entirely in voiceover by Martin Milner as Officer Pete Malloy.
Malloy’s narration plays over the immediate consequences of the shooting – the department protocol, the family notification, and then flashes back to Malloy and Porter starting their careers at the police academy. There is a documentary feel to these sequences, as we learn the specifics of how officers are trained.
This is followed by moments from Porter’s life and career – his graduation from the academy, his wedding, and the birth of his first child; a typical day at work from morning roll call through end of watch, and the paperwork that follows; the dangers of the job, and the moment when Porter was forced to take a life in self-defense.
And then, the inevitable follow-up to the opening scene – Tom Porter’s funeral, with his family and Officer Malloy in attendance. The attention to accuracy in detail was a Webb hallmark in depicting police procedures. The final scene shows Malloy alone with his thoughts at the gravesite.
Some have criticized the episode’s storytelling choices, arguing that if viewers had heard Tom speak, and gotten to know him better this way, his death would have made a deeper impression.
But I think that misses the point; this was not “Elegy for Tom Porter”; it was, as Webb reminds us by reading the episode’s title once more over silent-running credits, “Elegy For a Pig.” He wanted that title to sink in. It was a message to those who use that slur: This is who you’re talking about. And he’s not unique; he’s just one of many who go to work, doing a job that must be done, with the knowledge that every day may be his last.
“He will be forgotten except by a very few,” Malloy says, in the show’s final moments. “Out of sight, out of mind. And strangely enough, in view of current custom, no one will raise a placard to denounce his senseless murder. No one will raise indignant cries of protest at the shedding of his blood. No one will march in anger because of his death."
At a time when, once again, law enforcement personnel from the inner city to the southern border are being portrayed in a harsh and negative light, it seemed like a good time to bring this one up. I don’t know if “Elegy For a Pig” will change any minds, but it will certainly linger in them long enough to have an effect.