Dragnet

Something I find interesting on occasion is to look up the history of television shows. Television is a very young medium. Though the device itself was invented in the 1930s, the Great Depression and the second World War and its attendant economic privations meant that televisions were not widely owned until the late 1940s. Without an audience, not much was made to broadcast to it. It was, therefore, really the early 1950s in which television got its start.

This makes it easy to research, but also makes the chain of influences fairly short.

Dragnet actually started as a radio drama, starring Jack Webb as Detective Joe Friday. In 1951, it became a television show, with much the same cast as the radio drama, though his partner had to be changed out part way through. This show lasted until 1959. It was later revived in 1967, this time in color. This is the version which I think most people are familiar with, that stars Harry Morgon as Detective Bill Gannon alongside Jack Webb reprising his role as Joe Friday. Certainly it’s the version I’m most familiar with. It lasted until 1970.

There were other versions made, but none with Jack Webb since he died in 1982 (at the age of 62). In 1987 there was a comedic movie starring Dan Ackroyd and Tom Hanks. It’s almost a parody of the original, though it is not a mean-spirited parody and I can testify that it is a lot of fun. In 1989 there was a short-lived series called The New Dragnet, and in 2003 there was an even shorter-lived revival series called LA Dragnet.

Though Dragnet was not able to survive in the modern world of police procedurals, or possibly just it was not able to outlive its star, Jack Webb, it did have an enormous impact on television. Counterfactuals are impossible to state with certainty, but it seems likely that police procedurals would not have the form they have today if Dragnet had never happened.

Episodes of Dragnet, which are (surprisingly) easily found on YouTube, are interesting to watch. The detectives are in the homicide division, so in a very technical sense the cases are murder mysteries. However, they are not detective stories in the sense of Poirot or Agatha Christie. The detectives do a lot of work, of course, but they don’t really do anything particularly clever. They just keep talking to people until they get enough facts to convict the murderer.

What I find curious—given that I’m a huge fan of detective fiction with genius detectives and write some of it myself—is that, bare-bones as Dragnet is, it still satisfies the impulse to see a mystery solved. This is true of modern police procedurals as well. In both cases, they feel somewhat like empty calories—enjoyable while watching but they don’t really have any substance which sticks with one.

This is not true of the great detective stories. Murder on the Orient Express, Have His Carcase, Saint Peter’s Fair—these stories really stick with one. There are interesting ideas in them to chew on long after one’s read them.

But it’s a testament to the human craving for the solving of mysteries that even Dragnet, which was told in an almost deliberately un-entertaining style, still makes you want to watch to the end to find out what happens, if you watch the beginning. This may partially be a testament to the power of charisma, though. I can watch Harry Morgan in just about anything.

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