From the distinctive four-note opening of its theme music to the raft of catch phrases it produced, no other television cop show has left such an indelible mark on American culture as Dragnet. It was the first successful television crime drama to be shot on film and one of the few prime time series to have returned to production after its initial run. In Dragnet, Jack Webb, who produced, directed, and starred in the program, created the benchmark by which subsequent police shows would be judged.
The origins of Dragnet can be traced to a semi-documentary film noir, He Walked by Night (1948), in which Webb had a small role. Webb created a radio series for NBC that had many similarities with the film. Not only did both employ the same L.A.P.D. technical advisor, they also made use of actual police cases, narration that provided information about the workings of the police department, and a generally low-key, documentary style. In the radio drama Webb starred as Sgt. Joe Friday and Barton Yarborogh played his partner. The success of the radio show led to a Dragnet television pilot, aired as an episode of Chesterfield Sound Off Time in 1951, and resulted in a permanent slot for the series on NBC Television's Thursday night schedule in early 1952. Yarborogh died suddenly after the pilot aired and was eventually replaced by Ben Alexander, who played Officer Frank Smith from 1953 to the end of the series in 1959.
Dragnet was an instant hit on television, maintaining a top 10 position in the ratings through 1956. The series was applauded for its realism--actually a collection of highly stylized conventions which made the show an easy target for parodists and further increased its cultural cachet. Episodes began with a prologue promising that "the story you are about to see is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent," then faded in on a pan across the L.A. sprawl. Webb's mellifluous voice intoned, "This is the city. Los Angeles, California," and usually offered statistics about the city, its population, and institutions. Among the show's other "realistic" elements were constant references to dates, the time, and weather conditions. Producing the series on film permitted the use of stock shots of L.A.P.D. operations and location shooting in Los Angeles. This was a sharp contrast to the stage-bound "live" detective shows of the period. Dragnet emphasized authentic police jargon, the technical aspects of law enforcement, and the drudgery of such work. Rather than engaging in fist fights and gun play, Friday and his partner spent much screen time making phone calls, questioning witness, or following up on dead end leads. Scenes of the detectives simply waiting and engaging in mundane small talk were common. To save on costly rehearsal time Webb had actors read their lines off a TelePrompTer. The result was a clipped, terse style, that conveyed a documentary feel and became a trademark of subsequent series produced by Webb including Adam-12 and Emergency. Dragnet always concluded with an epilogue detailing the criminal's fate accompanied by a shot of the character shifting about uncomfortably before the camera.
Dragnet's stories, many written by James Moser, ran the gamut from traffic accidents to homicide. Other stories played on critical middle-class anxieties of the postwar period including juvenile delinquency, teenage drug use, and the distribution of "dirty" pictures in schools. Moral complexity was eschewed for a crime-doesn't-pay message sketched in stark black and white tones. Friday brooked little with lawbreakers, negligent parents, or young troublemakers. Program segments often concluded with the sergeant directing a tight-lipped homily to miscreants coupled with a musical "stinger" and an appreciative nod from his partner.
By 1954 Dragnet was watched by over half of America's television households. This success prompted Warner Brothers to finance and distribute a theatrical version of Dragnet (1954), signalling the rise of cross-promotion between film and television (Anderson, 1994). Further evidence of the show's popularity was found in the number of TV series that imitated its style, notably The Lineup, M Squad, and Moser's Medic, based on cases from the files of the Los Angeles County Medical Association. Conversely, other series like 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye, featuring younger, hipper detectives, were developed to provide an antidote to Dragnet's dour approach to crime fighting. As Dragnet neared completion of its initial run in 1959 Friday was promoted to lieutenant and Smith passed his sergeant's exam. Seven years later the show was revived by NBC as Dragnet 1967. Until it was cancelled in 1970, Dragnet was always followed by the year to distinguish the new series from its 1950s counterpart. In the new series Friday was once again a sergeant, now paired with Officer Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan). Though the style and format of the show remained the same, the intervening years and the rise of the counter culture had changed Friday from a crusading cop to a dyspeptic civil servant, alternately disgusted by the behavior of the younger generation and peeved at his partner's prattle about mundane topics. The program's conservatism was all the more apparent in the late 1960s as Friday's terse warnings of the fifties gave way to shrill lectures invoking god and country for the benefit of hippies, drug users, and protestors.
Webb's death in 1982 did not prevent another revival of Dragnet from appearing in syndication during the 1989-1990 season. Two younger characters filled in for Friday and his partner but the formula remained the same. This little-seen effort failed quickly in part because series such as Hill Street Blues and COPS had significantly altered the conventions of realistic police dramas. Those programs, and others like NYPD Blue, must be considered the true generic successors to the original Dragnet. As the archetypal television police drama Dragnet has remained a staple in reruns and continues to be an object of both parody and reverent homage.
Sgt. Joe Friday......................................... Jack Webb
Sgt. Ben Romero (1951)................. Barton Yarborough
Sgt. Ed Jacobs (1952)......................... Barney Phillips
Officer Frank Smith (1952)........................... Herb Ellis
Officer Frank Smith (1953-1959)........... Ben Alexander
Officer Bill Gannon (1967-1970).............. Harry Morgan
1952-1959 263 Episodes
1967-1970 100 Episodes
January 1952-December 1955 Thursday 9:00-9:30
January 1956-September 1958 Thursday 8:30-9:00
September 1958-June 1959 Tuesday 7:30-8:00
July 1959-September 1959 Sunday 8:30-9:00
January 1967-September 1970 Thursday 9:30-10:00
Anderson, Christopher. Hollywood/TV: The Studio System in the Fifties. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.
"Detective Story." Newsweek (New York), 14 January 1952.
Hubler, Richard G. "Jack Webb: The Man Who Makes Dragnet." Coronet (New York), September 1953.
"Jack, Be Nimble!" Time (New York), 15 March 1954.
Luciano, Patrick and Gary Coville. "Behind Badge 714: The Story of Jack Webb and Dragnet (Part One)." Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), August-September 1993.
_______________. "Behind Badge 714: The Story of Jack Webb and Dragnet (Part Two)." Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), October-November 1993.
Tregaskis, Richard. "The Cops' Favorite make-Believe Cop." Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 26 September 1953.