While, some exceptions to the show’s realism (such as the constant changing of departments or Joe Friday giving speeches) contribute to making the show enjoyable, it’s the show’s overall realistic presentation that makes it stand out.
Any program is going to have to compromise on realism. With the exception of the five two-part radio episodes, and two movies, every episode Dragnet resolves itself nicely in half an hour. There are bound to be compromises to make for good, fictionalized drama. As Clive James observed, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.”
Where Dragnet excelled is turning things that would be dull into things stuff that was interesting. They made an anti-riot task force set up in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination where nothing happened fairly interesting.
The behind-the-scenes details of how a crime investigation worked were usually neglected on other programs for exciting chases and crooks talking in bad accents in the style of Guys and Dolls. Here we got details on how the police solved their cases in a way no other program had done.
It also created suspense as to the ending. It didn’t always end with them making a dramatic arrest of the suspect. Dragnet wasn’t afraid to portray spending half a day on a stake out only to find out other policemen made the arrest across town. It feels a little anti-climatic, but you buy into that because that sort of thing happens to real detectives.
Dragnet is not perfectly realistic and perfectly true to life. If it were, no one would want to watch it other than people training to be policemen. However, it’s makes the details of police work entertaining and features enough realism in its structure to create a unique feel that allows a listener or viewer to feel like it’s real.
2) The Willingness to Tackle Tough Issues
Dragnet often brought awareness and attention to important issues that most shows wouldn’t tackle. It’s well known for its anti-drug episodes but it doesn’t get enough credit for how it shined a light on child abuse and neglect.
These shows could be the most heartbreaking episodes ever, but that’s what they were designed for. When many modern day dramas take on a tough issue, it’s exploitative. It was never that way with Dragnet. There’s a sense the show was trying to raise awareness. The earnestness about the show’s approach indicates they’re talking about this issue because it’s important. Jack Webb became highly involved in the LAPD community and the concerns of policemen and what they were seeing on the street became his concerns on the series.
While this can make for some sad and even uncomfortable viewing, I can’t help but respect the show’s honesty and sensitivity in dealing with tough issues.
1) It’s Understanding of the Power of Impact
In a world free of the restraint of prior generations’ mores, producers of film and television hit us with a constant barrage of sex and violence. The result is, what would have been shocking to older generations is rendered meaningless by the sheer volume of it that we encounter.
Dragnet not only stayed within the lines required of its culture, it was more economical with its use of violence. It went back to the show’s realism. Real police officers didn’t deal with shootouts every week, so why should Joe Friday?
Most weeks, Joe Friday’s gun remains concealed in his shoulder holster. However, when there is peril, danger, and gun play in Dragnet, it’s memorable and well done. An episode like, “The Big Break,” which involves smoke bombs, machine guns, and daring criminal escapes is really exciting. There’s Friday’s actions in the big scene of Dragnet 1966 that leaves him a total mess, or there’s also “The Grenade,” where he wrestles a disturbed young man with a live grenade. And limited violence makes Friday’s sadness believable at the end of, “The Big Thief,” when he’s had to shoot and kill a young robber.
Beyond violence, there were many emotions not regularly displayed on the show, but when they were, you knew a situation had really impacted the characters.
A show that uses violence and emotional theatrics all the time quickly makes those moments meaningless to the audience. By being disciplined, Dragnet made these moments truly matter to its audience which is a key to a powerful drama.