Ten Things I Love About Dragnet, Part Two

Continuing with our look at the ten things I love about Dragnet (See Part One)

7) The Music

The show’s incidental and theme music was one of it’s big assets starting from its third episode on radio until it went off the air in 1970. The show’s signature opening notes, followed by the disclosure that what you’re about to hear/see is true, ranks among the most iconic show openings ever.

But the music does more than that. After the opening notes, both the 1950s and 60s versions have different opening and closing themes, both of which are good, though I prefer the 1950s version as it’s just a bit more dramatic.

And once you get into the episode, the incidental music is able to convey sadness, excitement, or bemusement equally well. It’s a particular stand out over radio. In the 1950s, radio producers began cutting back on music, particularly on detective programs. Once you got to the mid-1950s, every single NBC program other than Dragnet was using the same set of canned and generic incidental and transition music. Dragnet continued to use high-quality music that set the mood and helped to tell the story.

6) Those Quirky Characters…

Dragnet had some wonderfully quirky characters throughout its run in terms of the witnesses, victims, and criminals.

The many memorable characters include:

  • the cranky religious book store owner in, “The Big Little Jesus” who was playing a long-term game of chess by mail.
  • the drifter killer in, “The Big Cast.”
  • the tortured woman who stole a baby in, “The Big Mother.”
  • the guy who collects exotic fish in, “The Big Frank.”
  • the young thief dressed in a superhero costume in “Burglary: DR-31.”  He stole movie memorabilia to further fantasies that let him escape for a few moments from school bullies and an overbearing mother.

Dragnet has the best guest characters. They only showed up for one story but they left an impact on audiences. The best Dragnet side characters could be funny or tragic, but they’re memorable. They also added a touch of humanity. While some of them are funny, just like the banter between Smith and Friday, they rarely went over the top, which makes them feel grounded and like real people.

5) The Sound Effects

The radio version of Dragnet has the best sound effects of any program during the Golden Age of radio. Most programs took the philosophy of doing the bare minimum, maybe an effect or two to ground the listeners in the scene.

Dragnet employed five sound effects men to create rich scenes where the sound showcases the location or activity going on perfectly. The many fine details in the sound of a Dragnet episode create a feeling of authenticity. You feel like you’re there with Joe Friday and his partner rather than hearing a radio episode. Even today, most modern radio producers don’t put this much effort into their soundscapes. Dragnet was decades ahead of its time in terms of the detail and quality of sound effects they used.

4) The Variety

Most detective programs and police programs have focused on murder investigations. There’s a reason for that: murder is a heinous crime. We all understand why it’s wrong and why the killer needs caught.

While Dragnet has its fair share of murder cases, Joe Friday works out of nearly every division in the LAPD at one time or another: Burglary, Juvenile, Robbery, Bunco, as well as more specialized divisions. This allows us to see procedures and parts of the police force that never are prominent on other shows.

Dragnet was cognizant that we may not care about these other crimes as much as murder, but they highlight victims hurt by activities like the obituaries racket, so we’ll care and understand why this crime is a real problem.

This approach has its drawbacks. The biggest is in the Dragnet 1969 series where they had Friday and Gannon working out of a lot of departments (like public affairs) which didn’t arrest people. Some were still interesting, but others were dull. Police officers sitting at a cabin in the woods and talking about race relations is something even Jack Webb couldn’t make interesting.

It also compromises on realism to have Friday switching departments every week, but it serves the show’s dramatic purposes and allows us to see a whole other side to police work you just didn’t see in other programs.

Next week, we wrap up the series by looking at the three things I like most about Dragnet.

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