Within two years of its 1952 small-screen debut, the eight-year long (1949-1957) radio series Dragnet had become television's number-one rated program. Created by actor Jack Webb, the series broke new ground from the outset, offering radio listeners rare authenticity of experience as they "accompanied" the police in following a case from beginning to final sentencing. Each episode unfolded at a measured pace, as detectives Friday and Smith followed clues, interviewed witnesses both friendly and hostile, and checked with various branches of law enforcement for information. Documentary realism was a key element of the show's appeal, with Jack Webb's own deadpan delivery and opening gambit, "This is the city. Los Angeles, California," making the mundane routine seem hip and cool.
The idea for Dragnet came to Webb after he had played a police lab technician in Anthony Mann's He Walked by Night (1948). He shared a belief with that film's technical adviser, Sgt. Marty Wynn of the LAPD, that pure investigative procedure was dramatic enough without introducing the traditional melodrama of the fictional hardboiled private eye. In early 1949, Webb secured the cooperation of the LAPD and Chief William H. Parker. As long as Webb didn't compromise confidentiality, or portray the police in any "unflattering entanglements," Parker granted him access to all actual case files. Early in 1949, thus armed, Webb approached NBC with his radio pilot for Dragnet.
Webb's radio style was to underplay. He stood way back from the microphones and potted everything up high so that all of the ambient sounds could be heard. He told Time magazine that "underplaying is still acting …. We try to make it as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee." And the series was realistic. When Webb and his partner walked up the steps to headquarters, listeners heard the exact number of steps it took. With his tremendous success on radio, Webb took Dragnet to television.
On television, Dragnet was extraordinarily conservative. Webb put the hard-boiled edge of nonconformist heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe into the conformist mouth of a downtown cop: "My name's Friday. I carry a badge." The character of Friday had no tolerance or sympathy for anyone outside the system. Los Angeles lawbreakers had to be punished, and Friday's investigations were carried out with a terse, no-nonsense approach. "Just the facts, ma'am," he often said to witnesses who digressed from the point. He had no interest in witnesses as personalities, nor did he have any interests in life outside of police work. His whole duty was to "serve and protect." By contrast, his partner Frank Smith, played by former child star Ben Alexander, was much more human, and often fretted over his health or his wife, Fay. Friday's diligence, however, fit well within a 1950s Cold War context of conformity. During a time in which Americans feared the spread of Communism and atomic weaponry, Friday was a figure of dependability and stability. During Dragnet's seven-year run, so pervasive was his image that, despite the rise in the national crime rate, the public came to believe that crime had diminished and that their city streets were safer than ever before.
The conservative tenor adopted by Webb can be detected in several episodes that border on a hysterical and paranoid vision. In "The Big Producer," a bunch of "dirty" joke books and nude photographs make their way into a high school, but Friday and Smith can't bring themselves to label the materials pornography. Instead, a series of ellipses between the two convey their fear over this "filth." In "The Big Seventeen," the duo cracks down on drugs, "H" for heroin, in the schools, but they are too late to save a 17-year old boy from overdosing. The endings of this, and several other episodes, were downbeat, and in a 1950s context, the hysteria and paranoia worked. When Dragnet was revived for the "Go-Go" years, 1967-1970, the hysterical mood was far too judgmental for later audiences.
Stylistically, Dragnet generated a unique syntax on the American landscape in its use of abbreviations and numerical codes. MO (modus operandi), DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), and APB (All Points Bulletin) became part of everyday speech, along with 212 (robbery), 459 (burglary), and 311 (lewd conduct). Walter Schumann's four-note theme musical theme, "Dum-de-dum-dum," was a motif evoking justice and retribution, but also a mood of agitation. The motif was taken up in popular culture as a metonym for trouble. In "Better Living Through TV," an episode of The Honeymooners, for example, Norton hums Schumann's Dragnet motif when Alice catches wind of another one of Ralph's "hare-brained schemes." And in the 1980s, a series of Tums ads that attacked antacid modified Schumann's theme to "Tum-te-tum-tum."
The series was immensely popular. Parodies of it abounded in the 1950s. Mad Magazine attacked its conformity and shilling for Chesterfield cigarettes. Radio comedians such as Stan Freberg and Bob and Ray had fun with its narrative excesses while, in a classic Chuck Jones cartoon, Rocket Squad (1954), featuring Daffy Duck and Porky Pig in the Friday and Smith parts, the two intrepid heroes become the villains. Moreover, the look of Dragnet, its reliance on shot/reverse shots and eyeline matches to connote judgment—a witness says something; Friday shakes his head and looks at an offscreen Smith; Smith shakes his head and looks in return at the offscreen Friday—became an industry standard in shooting such scenes with effective economy of style.
No doubt the success of Dragnet, and its chief ratings rival, I Love Lucy, in the early 1950s helped shape the direction of television's cop shows and sitcoms for years to come. The series also contributed to the positive portrayal of law enforcement that prevailed until the shocking images of Rodney King's beating in the early 1990s shook enlightened Americans' faith in the police. When loyal cop supporter Jack Webb died of a heart attack on December 23, 1982, the LAPD flew its flags at half-staff.
"Jack, Be Nimble!" Time. March 15, 1954, 47-50.
Marc, David. Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
Stark, Steven D. "Dragnet and the Policeman as Hero." In Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events that Made Us Who We Are Today. New York, The Free Press, 1997, 31-36.