A truly defining early entry in the annals of the embryonic genre of US television police drama series, Dragnet became the seminal template from which all later successful cops shows drew a measure of guidance and inspiration, and as such proved to be a pivotal turning point in the maturating of a medium which had, up to its arrival, been primarily dominated by comedy and variety shows.
Created by its multi-talented star, actor-director Jack Webb, Dragnet was inspired by the 1949 movie 'He Walked By Night', in which the actor played a lab technician, then began life as a radio series in 1949 and following a special TV preview on Chesterfield Sound Off Time, in December 1951. It officially made the successful transition to the television screen on the NBC Network on January 3rd, 1952, where its then fresh and realistic documentary approach and careful attention to the details of police procedure, immediately raised it above the overly melodramatic depiction of police and private eyes, which the viewing audience of the day were familiar with. The show's literally enormous success was ably attested to by the fact that for the initial seven years of its run, the series continued to exist concurrently in both its radio and TV incarnations. Dragnet can also lay legitimate claim to being an early successful entry in the multi-media/merchandising department, with a number of tie-in novels produced during the 50's and 60's as well as a motion picture spin off released in 1954 and two hit records of Water Schumann's famous signature theme "Dragnet March" (also known alternately as simply "Dragnet" or Danger Ahead"), one in 1953 recorded by Ray Anthony and His Orchestra, and a million selling parody "St. George and the Dragonet" by Stan Freberg, which actually reached the number one spot in the charts on its release.
The inspirations for 'Dragnet's' stories were drawn from real cases from the files of the Los Angeles police department, which also provided the series' locale. Guided by the laconically matter-of-fact voice-over of Webb's character, Sgt. Joe Friday, ("It was 3:55.... We were working the day watch out of homicide"), the viewing audience were invited to witness first hand a realistic portrayal of the often unglamorous, always methodical, daily lives of the detective division in a way which was unique in its basic honesty. During the course of an investigation Friday and his partner would experience frustrating dead ends, coupled with the almost constant interruptions to their private lives that are the lot of real life police officers. It was this deliberate highlighting of routine which ultimately made the infrequent, and always realistic, bursts of action and the apprehension of the criminal at an episode's end all the more exciting and believable. The end of episode voice-over, which would soberly relate the outcome of the trial and the severity of the sentence, further reinforced this sense of realism.
But the true creative heart and soul of the show rested in its one constant; Jack Webb. In the Joe Friday character, Webb succeeded in creating a solid, dependable and entirely honest everyman, which slowly developed into an iconic symbol of law and order in society, which endures almost undiminished in its potency to the present day. Over the course of 'Dragnet's' original television run between 1952 and September 1959 (after which the series went into syndication as Badge 714, which was Friday's warrant number), and again when the series returned in January 1967 to September 1970, Webb's creative drive and commitment, coupled with the Friday character's innate and unquestionable integrity, were the solid bedrock foundation which allowed the series to survive with credibility intact, despite the massive social changes of the mid sixties which had seen the authority of "establishment" figures such as the police eroded and called into question.
Although understandably dated now in certain aspects of production and social outlook, the impact and importance of Dragnet as a crucially defining force in US episodic television drama can never be realistically underestimated. Through Dragnet and its central character of Sgt. Joe Friday, Jack Webb bequeathed a dramatic legacy upon which the police drama as we know it today has continued to blossom and flourish.
Published on December 8th, 2018. Written by SRH for Television Heaven.