The Top Twenty-Five Dragnet Programs, Part Five

Continued from: 10-6, 15-11, 20-16, 25-21.

5) The Big Meet
Original Air Date: October 26, 1950

This was perhaps the best of the classic Joe Friday undercover narcotics buy stories just because the risks were so outrageous. Going up to buy money from drug dealers and hoping to bluff your way through with a wad of cash mixed with newspapers and worth about 5% of what you’re paying  is a tense enough situation particularly when much of the “cash” is newspaper. However, when it appears that the drug dealers have managed to lose your fellow officers tail, you’re looking a suspenseful classic.

4) The LSD Story

Original Air Date: January 12, 1967

This episode is perhaps the most definitive episode of the 1960s Dragnet as it’s known by people who weren’t even into Dragnet. The show does a great job portraying how those who are charged with enforcing the law are often frustrated by the law when it failed to deal with an issue like LSD use. The episode  is often known as the Blue Boy episode for the central suspect Benji Carver who first appears under influence of the drug with his face painted blue. The downbeat ending was beautifully done by Webb both from a directing and acting standpoint.

For some, this represented a hard hit back against the emerging counterculture. When Dragnet had left the air in 1959, it’d been a tired franchise worn out by nearly 600 radio and TV performance over the course of the decade. This episode began a new life with this episode as Friday re-emerged as the rock solid hero we needed in a time when everything was shifting including cherished values.

For many advocates of legalized drugs, this episode began a lifelong hate affair with Webb and Dragnet that continues to this day.

3) The City Hall Bombing/ The Human Bomb
Original Air Date: July 21, 1949 (Radio)
Original Air Date: December 16, 1951 (Television)

This story is quintessential Dragnet. A man holding a bomb is threatening to blow up city hall if the police don’t release his brother from county lock up and time is running out. Friday and Romero opt to try and stop the scheme at the risk of their own lives. The episode manages to mix the best elements of Dragnet: humanity, professionalism, and realistic danger and excitement. The end scene is a classic and sets the tone for the series. Too often, fictional cops were portrayed as almost superhuman or buffoons.The Human Bomb gives us a portrait of brave but cautious men who can make mistakes like everyone else. The story was great over radio and it was the perfect selection to lead off Dragnet over television in 1951.

2) Dragnet 1966

Original Air Date: January 27, 1969

From pure quality of the production, this may be the greatest Dragnet production ever.  Friday returns from vacation early to investigate the disappearance of three missing women. This was a made for TV movie and it took full advantage of its length to create a fully fleshed out thriller with amazing twists and turns, and one of Joe Friday’s finest action moments ever.

The film provides the context through which Joe Friday is commonly understood  It includes the dynamic, “Quirk in the Law” speech and Dragnet’s earliest attempts at taking on race relations. The suspect in that speech identifies Friday as an iconic figure when he calls him “the immortal sergeant..”

In addition to these dramatic features, Dragnet 1966 includes some great comic relief, most notably Virginia Gregg has the head of a matrimonial bureau. In addition, the impending retirement of Bill Gannon is a source of great comedy.

Sadly, this film is less well-known than it should be as it was not replayed often, wasn’t re syndicated with the 1960s Dragnet TV shows, and is only legally available as an extra on the Dragnet 1968/Season 2 DVD, so many Dragnet fans haven’t seen it. This is a pity as it is was a true classic.

1) The Big Departure

Original Air Date: March 7, 1968

Dragnet is often accused of being a forum where Jack Webb pushed his political views. However, Dragnet’s ideas were not seen as all that political at the time. What we know of Webb’s personal politics is really quite limited. What we can say safely of Webb’s political beliefs was that he was anti-Communist, supportive of the Civil Rights movement, and pro-law enforcement. However, this episode provides a good view of Webb on America.

The episode tells of Friday and Gannon encountering a young gang of thieves who look down on society and plan to flee to island to start a just, peaceful, and moral nation. To this end, they begin robbing stores to acquire needed supplies and injuring anyone who stood in their way. (Irony alert.)

“The Big Departure” really was born of its times. The 1960s radicals, many of whom in one form or another urged young people to tune out. There were all types of opportunities to destructively turn away from a society with its troubles. There was the drug culture, hippy communes, and terrorist organizations like the Weather Underground, all of which urged people to tune out of traditional American processes and in many cases, to violate the laws of the land.

In “The Big Departure,” Friday and Gannon don’t bother arguing that America is perfect, rather they argue that its worthwhile and that the boys need to engage in life, not run away from it.

Webb understood what it was to be angry about injustice. When he was 26, he made a radio series, “One Out of Seven” that dealt with racial prejudice and intolerance. By 1968, the situation had begun to improve. But, this only happened because people worked to make things better, not escaping to a fantasy land.

At the core of Dragnet was a belief in the rule of law. The police officers were the good guys because they enforced the laws and made America work, giving democracy a chance to work. As Friday said, “Don’t try to build a new country. Make this one work. It has for over four hundred years; and by the world’s standards, that’s hardly more than yesterday.” That is the heart of the series.

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