"The story you are about to see is true", "Just the facts, ma'am", "We were working the day watch" - phrases which became so popular as to inspire much parody - set the realistic tone of this early police drama. The show emphasized careful police work and the interweaving of policemen's professional and personal lives. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
The show's semi-documentary format was inspired by the Film-Noir He Walked by Night (1948) in which 'Jack Webb' played a forensic chemist. Technical Advisor Sgt. Marty Wynn, of The LAPD, suggested to Webb that he do a radio series based on the work of the LAPD. Hence "Dragnet", the radio series debuted in 1949. See more »
Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
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I've been watching some older episodes recently, courtesy of a couple of bargain four-episodes DVD I got in a Brighton 99p shop, and my attitude towards the series has changed somewhat from when I first saw Dragnet some decades ago. I now realise that the very tight, plodding format with the story told mostly through voice-over - much satirised, most memorably in Police Squad! and in a classic parody in an early Mad magazine - can somewhat blind the viewer to some of the show's more subtle strengths. The show does seem to make an effort to show the often tedious and legwork-heavy aspects of police work, and avoids violence and gratuitous gunplay as much as possible. But there's often a very sympathetic tone in Dragnet episodes towards the culprit, understanding that crime is often tragedy - such as in an episode called Big Porn, where in the final minutes a pornographer is revealed as a sad, tired old man, reliving his old days as a movie director. I particularly like an episode called Big Shoplift where the criminal turns out to be a lonely woman suffering from kleptomania, for whom even Joe Friday recognises that jail is not the right place. This compassion was a step forward from the efficient but rather cold film that inspired Dragnet, He Walked by Night, in which Webb had a bit part.
When I first saw Dragnet, I think in particular I underestimated the performance of Jack Webb, who seems to approach his suspects with a very human demeanour which is entirely realistic and such an antidote to the overplayed performances of many later TV cops. Webb produced and often wrote and directed the shows, and he displays a sure, experienced touch. Incidentally, the series didn't always take itself that seriously: look out for a wildly campy episode which alters the opening titles to read "Badge 417".
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