- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

The facts, ma'am, are these: "Dragnet" is back. It premieres tomorrow night on ABC. It stars Ed O'Neill as LAPD robbery/homicide detective Joe Friday. It's the latest brainchild of "Law and Order" producer Dick Wolf.
Cue the legendary theme song's four-note introduction: Dum-da-dum-dum.
Wait a minute. What's with that techno groove?
Furiously paced and surprisingly racy, this is "Dragnet" for the MTV generation.
That said, the reprise of the seminal '50s cop series plays it dead-seriously straight. The names, of course, have been changed to protect the innocent.
In contrast to the 1987 "Dragnet" movie starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks, which was more a satire than a faithful re-creation of the show, this modern-day revival is long on business and short on irony, much like Sgt. Friday himself.
It has the noir-ish, documentary-style feel of the original; the police jargon-laden dialogue; the world-weary, seen-it-all attitude; the deadpan voice-overs; the wrap-up mug shot montage at the end, when all is revealed and justiceis served.
This is a pre-postmodern "Dragnet": It takes the big old depraved world's punches on the chin and throws a right-hook's worth of morality back in its face.
Mr. O'Neill delivers those brusque Friday cliches with relish:
"You talk, or you'll never talk again."
"Keep those media maggots out of our faces."
"This is the city. Los Angeles. I work here."
While he's not exactly Jack Webb, who played the original Joe Friday, Mr. O'Neill is a long way from Al Bundy, the cynical boor he played on Fox's "Married … With Children."
In tomorrow night's opener, Sgt. Friday and his partner, Frank Smith (Ethan Embry, seen most recently in the movie "Sweet Home Alabama"), a young buckaroo just promoted from vice squad, track a serial killer who is apparently modeling his work after the mid-'70s "Hillside Stranglers," two cousins who kidnapped, raped and killed nine women in northeast Los Angeles.
TV audiences certainly didn't see these kinds of crime scenes in the '50s.
"Dragnet" is quietly, academically graphic; it has the "CSI" fetish for forensics. Friday and Smith do their investigating like Columbo: They reason, deduce, extrapolate out loud until eureka a vital clue emerges as they rap with a coroner over a cold, dead body.
There are, as there must be, other concessions to 21st-century realities. The gimlet-eyed detectives talk on cell phones now; they search the Web; and they use the kind of salty language for which producer Steven Bochco made TV safe.
While it's been adequately hip-ified for the 2000s, "Dragnet" always stays tightly tethered to the show's original concept. Maybe too tightly.
The problem with "Dragnet" is that it tries too hard; it's too self-conscious, and you needn't have seen the old series to realize this.
Mr. O'Neill and Mr. Embry overact to the point that they seem cartoonish. They don't act like real people: They act like actors acting like real people.
Remaking a TV show is no easy task. To the extent that they succeed, movie franchises such as "Mission Impossible" and "Charlie's Angels" work because they have enough star voltage, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, for example, to make the audience forget about their small-screen origins.
Mr. O'Neill and Mr. Embry, who last appeared together in the movie "Dutch," can't quite pull off the trick of making us believe in the world of "Dragnet."
Where Mr. Wolf's "Law and Order" makes an emotional and intellectual connection to its audience, his "Dragnet" feels like a comic strip, except it's too earnest to be funny.
What's worse, it's too risible to be taken seriously.
I'm sorry, ma'am, but those are the facts.

**
WHAT: "Dragnet" series premiere
WHEN: 10 p.m. tomorrow on ABC
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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