I first began old-time radio podcasting in 2007 with the Old Time Dragnet show. The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio began in 2009 based on suggestions I received from fans of the Dragnet podcast and it’s safe to say my initial subscribers to this podcast were fans of Dragnet. In 2013, when my Dragnet podcast was finishing its run, I added a sixth weekly episode to this podcast for procedural shows and Dragnet took that stop a year and a half later.
Since beginning, the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio fan base has expanded to include people who don’t care for Dragnet. This is fine. With every series we’ve played on this podcast, someone hasn’t cared for it. Since we started, the strength of this podcast has been that we play a variety of shows so most mystery fans will have some series they can enjoy.
However, a few people have asked genuinely what I like about Dragnet because they just don’t get it. There’s a lot you can point to with Dragnet that shows it was popular and successful. If you’ve listened to the series in recent months, you’ve heard the series given multiple on-air awards, including the Edgar Award for outstanding mystery writing. However, this doesn’t explain the show’s appeal anymore than the box office success of the Harry Potter or Twilight films explains their success to people who don’t get that.
I’m not under the illusion this column is going to persuade everyone to love Dragnet. It’s not to everyone’s tastes and what I love about it may be what someone else despises about it. If anything, I hope some people who’ve never really seen it will check it out and maybe people with limited experience with it might get a fresh perspective.
The Dragnet franchise was actively produced for the better part of two decades across two TV series, a movie, and a radio series, and some of what I talk about will only apply to one of those. With that said, let’s get started with listing ten of the things I love about Dragnet:
10) The Zinger Lines
Many of these lines ended a scene or an episode. It would be rare for the last line in a Dragnet to be something like, “Thanks for your time,” or, “Alright, let’s get going.” The scene had to end with music being played and the show had a sense that the music had to be earned.
Whichever version you’re enjoying, that structure is there. Sometimes, it is humorous, such as in the episode, “the Badge Racket” where Friday is questioned by a detective who sees him making an arrest of two men who’d been pretending to be police officers at police headquarters. This lead to this bit of dialog to wrap up the episode:
Police detective: You make your cases right in the building now?
Joe: No, these two just made a simple mistake.
Police detective: What’s that?
Joe: They thought they worked here.
Other times, it was Joe Friday’s smack downs of the criminal and cowardly. In the 1954 film, a man backed out of testifying against a gang out of fear and asks Friday, “If you was me, would you do it?”
Friday: Can I wait awhile?
Friday: Before I’m you.
In, “The Big Betty,” Friday and Smith had spent the episode on the trail of a gang who took advantage of the families of recently deceased people to find the mastermind half-drunk at a New Year’s Eve Party and blathering about how she cries at midnight at New Years. She declares she does it even though she, “Never had any reason for it.”
Friday frowned and said, “You’re going to have one this year, lady.”
The show’s zingers give it a unique and memorable style. Admittedly, not every zing line works, and some take too long to set up. Still, most hit the mark, and the zinger lines really gives the show a unique rhythm.
9) The Joe Friday Speeches
This one was only prominent in the 1960s revival and is a controversial element of that series. Overall, I like them.
Probably the closest Friday came to giving big speeches prior to the 1960s was the episode, “The Big Fraud” where he let his fury fly at con men who had pretended to be policemen and then in the 1954 movie where he detailed his salary to the villain of the film, Max Troy. Both speeches were under sixty seconds but still packed a punch.
It’s in the 1960s when things got epic with speeches like, “A Quirk in the Law” in the Dragnet TV movie or his “To Be a Cop” speech or his speech from, “The Big Departure.”
The best of the Joe Friday speeches were snappy but eloquent. They express their ideas well and often have evocative imagery. There’s nothing original about the idea that police have a challenging job, but the imagery used in his, “To Be a Cop” speech is so vivid:
“And then there’s your first night on the beat. When you try to arrest a drunken prostitute in a Main Street bar and she rips your new uniform to shreds. You’ll buy another one out of your own pocket. And you’re going to rub elbows with all the elite: pimps, addicts, thieves, bums, winos, girls who can’t keep an address, and men who don’t care. Liars, cheats, con men, the class of Skid Row. And the heartbreak: underfed kids, beaten kids, molested kids, lost kids, crying kids, homeless kids, hit-and-run kids, broken arm kids, broken leg kids, broken head kids, sick kids, dying kids, dead kids. The old people that nobody wants: the reliefers, the pensioners, the ones who walk the street cold, and those who tried to keep warm and died in a three-dollar room with an unvented gas heater.”
It’s a great use of language with good delivery that gives authority to the material. Of course, there’s a question of how this works with the idea of realism in Dragnet. Real life police officers don’t give big, eloquent speeches. They’ll give lectures to motorists but nothing like a Friday speech, particularly in debating non-criminal antagonists of the police force as Friday does in several episodes.
The important thing to remember is Jack Webb had spent many years working with the LAPD at this point and gotten to know several real officers. In many ways, in the 1960s, he made Friday their voice about issues that bothered them such as drugs, family decline, and what being a cop meant. Friday said things that most on-duty cops wouldn’t dare say but that most of the cops Jack Webb associated with really thought. So, it compromises realism but so does Joe Friday switching departments every week.
8) The Banter
This was an element that came into the show in 1952 with Ben Alexander coming on board as Friday’s partner Frank Smith and continued even into the 1960s TV series with Harry Morgan as Bill Gannon.
From 1952 on, this was in the vast majority of episodes and usually right at the start of the episode. Most episodes would begin with some good-natured banter between Friday and his partner, with the conversation often taking a comedic turn. This initial conversation would occasionally be followed up later on in the episode, but usually it was paid off in that one scene.
The scenes are always funny, but not too funny or over the top. Frank Smith and Bill Gannon aren’t sitcom characters or caricatures, they’re just a couple of friends with some personality quirks.
This serves several purposes other than being fun to watch. First, it makes you feel like they are real people with real personalities that play off one another. It also can serve the dramatic plot of the story. Most often, it creates a contrast. In a week where the show deals with a heavy topic, the light scene at the beginning serves as contrast and makes a heavier plot seem more serious and grim by comparison.
Next week, we’ll continue our look at what I think makes Dragnet so great to watch and listen to.
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