It’s easy to be hard on Dragnet 1967, with its obvious squareness,
its sexlessness, its lack of (intentional) humor and its blatant modesty.
However, the only real weak link in its chain is
its obsessive need to deliver an easy, uninspiring payoff. Each
cop-n-criminal tale is a success story – no cold cases here. There are
never any surprises, which is – unsurprisingly – exactly what its
ultra-conservative audience demands.
dawning of the Age of Aquarius seemed like the right time to dust off and
shine up this tough old gem. The original series (first on radio and then
on early TV) was hard-hitting and rather shocking for its time, dealing
with such out-there-for-the-fifties topics as child molestation, drug
addiction and mass murder. Its unwavering respect for the golden rule and
its always-sober vibe seemed to strike a chord with the public – an
unusual offering from a medium which went out of its way to avoid
offending anyone except for its constant dependence on hysterics, buffoons
earnestness of the series quietly dug its own groove. It worked so well
that it almost never veered from its tried-and-true formula. It was proud
of the fact that “the story you are about to see is true. The names have
been changed to protect the innocent.” The tales, pulled from police files
and airbrushed for television, were as rigid and as tightly wound as a
nagging nerve; nobody, not even the criminals, was allowed to melt down
too far from their controlled center. A stab of trumpets, always cued up
on time, seemed to serve as a replacement for an adrenaline rush.
chaotic, seamy side of Los Angeles
is contrasted with the heavy-gravity persona of the unflappable detective
named Joe Friday (Jack Webb). Here was a rock with no life; exceedingly
polite yet blunt to a fault. He always got his man, and was an employer’s
dream: no outside interests, no desire for a raise or a promotion, and
seemingly no appetite for sex or food. He was conservatism incarnate.
Dragnet 1967, Webb brings his grim film-noir character into the Los
Angeles of the hippies and the nervous rich. This is just as the city is
becoming LA-a-go-go; we watch helplessly as LA forgets to prepare
for its unwelcome of the Manson family. It’s a place where, according to
the statistics in Joe Friday’s reliable head, “for every crime that’s
committed, there are three million suspects to choose from.” It’s a place
where bank employees actually wear suits and when a Japanese woman is
murdered, we hear (what else?) Japanese music.
in his former series, Joe Friday never seems to run out of ways to
describe his home town, from the intriguing (“a lot of people earn a
living here”) to the downright charming (“some come here to see stars or
to become one; others come here to die.”).
series is much less menacing in color, and the City of Angels is still as
timelessly ugly and as boring to look at as ever. Yet now we have periodic
visits to the Sunset Strip, what Friday hiply observes as the “in” place
to go. This area serves as a hotbed for the bottomless obsession with
Youth, and how, according to the right-wing thought behind this show,
Youth equals Criminal. Youth is an obvious challenge to order.
“What kind of kick are you on, son?” Friday asks the infamous Blue Boy, a
trippy teenager who paints his face blue and freaks out on acid (an
outrageous premise on 1967 prime time, which usually never got higher than
The Flying Nun). Blue Boy is one of the few unpredictable villains
on the series, so interest in him has grown over the years. Upon his
arrest, when Friday commands him to “stay put in that chair,” Blue Boy
answers, “I AM the chair.” Of course, Blue Boy means no harm – his only
real crime is that – as well as his stint as a chair – he thinks he’s a
tree. The worst crime any youth can
commit here is not murder or rape, but to “fink”
on his friends.
Even the Boy’s own mother, in typical, well-rehearsed TV dialogue denial,
scoffs at the Youth who are “letting their hair grow long or dressing up
like those English singers.” However, Friday informs mom (and Joe Hardhat,
who is watching in the millions) that what her son is “on” is “a Freak
Out. The Trip. The Ticket.” If you were listening and not watching, you
would think Joe Friday is Timothy Leary.
These “juvenile experimenters,” as Friday calls them, have been “dropping
that acid we’ve been hearing about.” And another hippie’s mother (in
denial, of course) registers a protest of her own as she disapproves of
the latest fashions from swinging London: “no son of mine is gonna dress up like a circus clown.”
Miranda rights, relatively new at the time, are recited so often that if
you had a dollar for every time they were read, you would be able to
afford a nice lunch. However, Friday reads them with feeling. He means
every word of it. As he recites, he even puts his hands in his pockets,
laid-back-LA style. And, of course, when rights are read to Youth, The
Kids respond with “I dig.”
series wants badly to be “everyday.” Even the cop car, a gold Ford
Galaxie, is humdrum. And Friday jump starts one story with these thrilling
words: “We were on our way to lunch when the sergeant stopped us in the
hallway.” And speaking of lunch, Friday is joined by his new partner, the
sandwich-lovin’ Bill Gannon (Henry Morgan, of future M*A*S*H fame),
who serves lamely as a source of comic relief (his love of food seems to
break what little tension the show builds). At one point, big-help Gannon
offers his partner some healthy advice: “smoke a cigarette and go home.”
And the only glimpse we get into Friday’s sweaty inner-self is when he
hints approvingly to Gannon, “Ya know, if you could cook, I’d marry ya.”
After Blue Boy, everything else seems like a letdown – even the
neo-Nazis. However, you’ll never get tired of watching old traffic, and
you may learn a thing or two as Friday and Gannon infiltrate subcultures
(like the furrier business, for instance, when terrific character-actor
Henry Corden says yiddishly, “help from me you can do without.”).
It’s a police procedural drama without cell phones or walkie-talkies or a
whisper of whimsy, a series that is itching to show you that TV crime
fighting can be as dull as the real thing. And somehow it pays off.
However, in 1967, not only the names, but also the hairdos have been
changed to protect the innocent.
All rights reserved. Posted: July 14, 2005.