- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

Dum-da-dum-dum. Of course, you remember that unmistakable theme from "Dragnet." Or, if you're not a baby boomer, maybe you don't. It's been a long time since "Dragnet" was the best-known, best-loved cop series on television.
After its premier in the early '50s, this gritty half-hour drama starring a hard-boiled B-movie actor with a crew cut named Jack Webb remained an audience favorite throughout the Eisenhower years.
Plopping down on their Danish modern sofas in front of the old Philco each Thursday night with a huge bag of Lay's New Era potato chips slathered with homemade cream cheese dip reeking of fresh garlic and onions, or better yet, digging into hot Swanson's TV dinners (baked in their newfangled Tappan ovens), thousands of Americans glued their eyes to the tube to watch Detective Sgt. Joe Friday and his even more humorless sidekick Frank Smith take a bite out of crime.
Like "Star Trek," "Dragnet" proved to be a franchise that would not die.
Canceled the first time in 1959, it was revived in living color in the late 1960s. It was canceled again in 1970 only to resurface in 1987 in an affectionate Hollywood spoof starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks, and again in the late '80s as a short-lived TV series.
But hope springs eternal. ABC has decided to revive this venerable cop drama yet another time, proving you can never have too much of a good thing as long as it's a sequel to something that once made someone a lot of money.
Today's "Dragnet" is brought to you by "Law and Order" jefe Dick Wolf, who persuaded the struggling alphabet network to order up 13 episodes of the show. "'Dragnet' is the single greatest cop-show franchise in television history," Mr. Wolf told the Hollywood Reporter. "It provided the blueprint on which everything has been built."
"Dragnet" was the brainchild of Jack Webb, whose stint in Hollywood included forgettable second-banana film roles in the 1940s and early 1950s. A hard-bitten loner who suffered through a miserable childhood, Mr. Webb was an aspiring artist who planned to return to his studies after a stint in the military. But soon he found work in Hollywood as a character actor in several movies, including the 1948 film noir, "He Walked by Night," in which he played a forensic scientist. Fascinated by the technical aspects of police procedures, he developed a new radio series titled "Dragnet," which first aired in 1949. The show, and its terse Detective Sgt. Joe Friday, connected with its audience immediately. It is regarded as the first realistic procedural cop show.
TV was a new medium in the early 1950s, and many of its early stars and newscasters were carry-overs from radio. Not surprisingly, Mr. Webb was able to bring his radio show to the small screen. He wore all the hats when "Dragnet" premiered as a television series on NBC in 1952. He directed the show, starred in it, and produced it through his own Mark VII production company. He quickly went through a couple of sidekicks (his original radio partner had died after the show's 1951 preview) before settling on Ben Alexander, who played Officer Frank Smith for the rest of the original series' run.
"Dragnet" was an overnight smash, very Hollywood noir, black and gray, moody and dark. It was the first crime drama to focus on day-to-day police work rather than the kind of shoot'em-up hyperactivity that plagues crime shows today. As no-nonsense cops, Mr. Webb and Mr. Alexander were out to solve crimes, and their terse queries and deadpan shtick as they interviewed each stock eccentric and weirdo became the stuff of TV legend. "Dragnet's" moralistic tone also meshed seamlessly with the anti-communist mood of the Eisenhower era. Each show always ended with the accused convicted in court before it cut to the credits.
"Dragnet" solved crimes not with bullets or intimidation but with questions, answers, and deductive detective work. You can still see the show's influence today in the popular science-based true crime shows on cable such as "Forensic Detectives," where painstaking, creative detective work is the focal point, not the brief and grisly murder re-enactments.
The format of "Dragnet" was crisp and fast-paced. Each show was all business, with little if any time for character development. Mr. Webb's famous line, "Just the facts, ma'am," forced garrulous witnesses to cut to the chase and get the show over before the next station break. To speed things even more, Mr. Webb used narrative voice-overs to set each scene, eliminating the need for transition material.
After spending most of the 1950s in TV's Top 10, "Dragnet" lost its steam and was canceled in 1959. But in an entertainment industry that always finds it less risky to recycle old hits rather than create innovative new ones, it wasn't long before Mr. Webb was asked to do a made-for-TV "Dragnet" movie. The 1966 flick was good enough for studio execs to order up a new TV series, which began to air in 1967 as "Dragnet 1967." (The movie was pulled in favor of the series and didn't air until 1969.)
A notable difference during the series' second run was the actor who replaced Mr. Alexander. As the laconic Bill Gannon, Harry Morgan's deadpan looks and occasional pointless monologues added a touch of humor that had never been present in the show's first iteration. Mr. Morgan later went on to the most popular role of his career as the nutty Col. Potter in TV's long-running M*A*S*H.
Unfortunately, what worked for "Dragnet" in the 1950s failed it in the late 1960s. Now in washed-out color, the show seemed incredibly retro to a rising generation of loudmouthed leftist longhairs whose idea of progress was to levitate the Pentagon and elevate Ho Chi Minh to secular sainthood. A patriotic conservative, an unabashed supporter of Los Angeles cops and proud of it, Mr. Webb despised hippies, druggies, and Marxists of all stripes, and he frequently used his show to climb on his soapbox and denounce the pill poppers, pushers, and peaceniks he regarded as traitors.
The Woodstock Nation regarded the new "Dragnet" as impossibly camp, ridiculing the straight laced Mr. Webb as the personification of the joyless conformity of the middle-class world they were trying to loosen up. They particularly disparaged Mr. Webb's hectoring of ratty-looking hippies on the evils of pot and acid, likening his views to the propaganda embodied in their favorite cult anti-drug film, "Reefer Madness."
The new "Dragnet" was canceled in 1970. But this was not the end of the show's creator. He promptly spun off the successful "Adam-12," a cop buddy show more loosely structured than "Dragnet." Another Webb brainchild was the innovative "Emergency," whose intersecting plots and character-based format directly inspired later crime and hospital dramas such as "Law and Order" and "ER." Mr. Webb remained a driven and lonely man, prone to chain-smoking and heavy drinking. Along with his Type-A personality, his habits proved to be too much for him, and he succumbed to a heart attack in 1982.
Fast-forward to 2003. Mr. Wolf's new "Dragnet" will debut as an hourlong series, still based on procedural crime solving, but freshening its look somewhat, blending real crime stories into composites to create more complex plots and fewer cliches. Cast somewhat surprisingly as Joe Friday in this revival will be Ed O'Neill, well-known to rerun addicts as Al Bundy, an Archie Bunker without the brains in the sleazy sitcom "Married … With Children." Cast as sidekick Frank Smith is the boyish Ethan Embry, who recently played Reese Witherspoon's romantic interest in the film "Sweet Home Alabama." Here's a 21st century generation gap waiting to happen.
It remains to be seen whether the old "Dragnet" formula can be spruced up for a new generation, but Mr. Wolf may be onto something here. There does seem to be a newfound respect for authority in the air, especially for men in blue. But are we undergoing a true cultural shift? Or just experiencing a fleeting popular mood a mixture of sentimentality and dread that will evaporate as soon as we emerge from this improbably dramatic era of heroes and evildoers? The reaction to the latest revival of "Dragnet" could turn out to be an interesting test, if, that is, Joe Friday holds up his end of the cultural experiment by sticking to his old conservative guns.
If the new Joe Friday hasn't gone wobbly, then 2003 could seem like dj vu all over again. But perhaps this time, the outcome will be different.

'DRAGNET' TRIVIA:
Remember at the tail end of the show that sweaty pair of hands pounding "Mark VII" on what looked like a piece of stone or steel? This was the trademark of Jack Webb's production company and was itself based on the hammer and gong trademark of the J. Arthur Rank film company in Britain. The owner of the hands was James Drake, a member, appropriately, of the set's crew.
Joe Friday wore LAPD badge number 714 in the series. This was reportedly Jack Webb's tribute to Babe Ruth's home run record.
Some musicologists think they know where that famous "Dragnet" theme originated. They have a suspicion that it was swiped from the first four notes of Franz Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony."

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