TV classics: Dragnet

USA 1951-59, 8 seasons,  276 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, NBC, black & white. Narrated by George Fenneman and Hal Gibney, Created and produced by Jack Webb. Cast: Jack Webb, Ben Alexander, Recurring cast members: Olan Soule, Vic Perrin, Ralph Moody, Walter Sande, Harry Bartell, Art Balinger, Jack Kruschen, Art Gilmore, Herb Vigran, Barney Phillips, Herbert Ellis, Virginia Gregg, Bert Holland, Lillian Powell, Natalie Masters, Victor Rodman, Harry Morgan et al.

Plot summary: Based on real cases, the crime show offered an insight into the challenges of the police force in Los Angeles, following the daily work of Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner(s).

Review: Following his small role in the movie He walked by Night from 1948, Jack Webb created a crimes series of his own liking. Researching real police work and driving night patrols with police officer and technical film advisor Marty Wynn, Webb sought the endorsement of the LAPD with a promise to depict their work in a realistic and unbiased way. Supported by NBC for a small number of episodes, Dragnet entered America’s living rooms on radio in 1949 before it also premiered on television two years later.

Not an immediate hit, the show did well as soon as it conquered the small screen, weekly featuring a new drastic case. Introduced by a narrator who assured the audience that the story they were about to see was true, each case was built around Sgt. Joe Friday, his partner(s) and the different types of crime they were confronted with. Often mentioning the specific situation in L.A., the series showed a very different side of the city’s police force and was sometimes criticized for leaving out internal problems. All in all however, Dragnet gave a well-rounded introduction to general police work and looked at crimes from an investigative point of view.

Starting out with “The Human Bomb” in 1951, Joe Friday was supported by a variety of well-known regulars and guest stars of the time until the show ended in 1959. It was picked up again in color eight years later and lasted another three seasons, earning criticism as well as praise for its depiction of the so-called counterculture of the late 1960s. Today, the show offers a great look back at a time that was different in some, but not in every way. After all, Los Angeles, like any big city, has never been a cushioned place to live in.

Selected episodes available online in public domain. Sample episode, “The Human Bomb”, season 1, episode 1 (with Raymond Burr).