the distinctive four-note opening of its theme music to the raft
of catch phrases it produced, no other television cop show has left
such an indelible mark on American culture as Dragnet. It
was the first successful television crime drama to be shot on film
and one of the few prime time series to have returned to production
after its initial run. In Dragnet, Jack Webb, who produced,
directed, and starred in the program, created the benchmark by which
subsequent police shows would be judged.
origins of Dragnet can be traced to a semi-documentary film
noir, He Walked by Night (1948), in which Webb had a small
role. Webb created a radio series for NBC that had many similarities
with the film. Not only did both employ the same L.A.P.D. technical
advisor, they also made use of actual police cases, narration that
provided information about the workings of the police department,
and a generally low-key, documentary style. In the radio drama Webb
starred as Sgt. Joe Friday and Barton Yarborogh played his partner.
The success of the radio show led to a Dragnet television pilot,
aired as an episode of Chesterfield Sound Off Time in 1951,
and resulted in a permanent slot for the series on NBC Television's
Thursday night schedule in early 1952. Yarborogh died suddenly after
the pilot aired and was eventually replaced by Ben Alexander, who
played Officer Frank Smith from 1953 to the end of the series in
was an instant hit on television, maintaining a top 10 position
in the ratings through 1956. The series was applauded for its realism--actually
a collection of highly stylized conventions which made the show
an easy target for parodists and further increased its cultural
cachet. Episodes began with a prologue promising that "the story
you are about to see is true; the names have been changed to protect
the innocent," then faded in on a pan across the L.A. sprawl. Webb's
mellifluous voice intoned, "This is the city. Los Angeles, California,"
and usually offered statistics about the city, its population, and
institutions. Among the show's other "realistic" elements were constant
references to dates, the time, and weather conditions. Producing
the series on film permitted the use of stock shots of L.A.P.D.
operations and location shooting in Los Angeles. This was a sharp
contrast to the stage-bound "live" detective shows of the period.
Dragnet emphasized authentic police jargon, the technical aspects
of law enforcement, and the drudgery of such work. Rather than engaging
in fist fights and gun play, Friday and his partner spent much screen
time making phone calls, questioning witness, or following up on
dead end leads. Scenes of the detectives simply waiting and engaging
in mundane small talk were common. To save on costly rehearsal time
Webb had actors read their lines off a TelePrompTer. The result
was a clipped, terse style, that conveyed a documentary feel and
became a trademark of subsequent series produced by Webb including
Adam-12 and Emergency. Dragnet always concluded
with an epilogue detailing the criminal's fate accompanied by a
shot of the character shifting about uncomfortably before the camera.
stories, many written by James Moser, ran the gamut from traffic
accidents to homicide. Other stories played on critical middle-class
anxieties of the postwar period including juvenile delinquency,
teenage drug use, and the distribution of "dirty" pictures in schools.
Moral complexity was eschewed for a crime-doesn't-pay message sketched
in stark black and white tones. Friday brooked little with lawbreakers,
negligent parents, or young troublemakers. Program segments often
concluded with the sergeant directing a tight-lipped homily to miscreants
coupled with a musical "stinger" and an appreciative nod from his
By 1954 Dragnet was watched by over half of America's television
households. This success prompted Warner Brothers to finance and
distribute a theatrical version of Dragnet (1954), signalling
the rise of cross-promotion between film and television (Anderson,
1994). Further evidence of the show's popularity was found in the
number of TV series that imitated its style, notably The Lineup,
M Squad, and Moser's Medic, based on cases from the files
of the Los Angeles County Medical Association. Conversely, other
series like 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye, featuring
younger, hipper detectives, were developed to provide an antidote
to Dragnet's dour approach to crime fighting. As Dragnet
neared completion of its initial run in 1959 Friday was promoted
to lieutenant and Smith passed his sergeant's exam. Seven years
later the show was revived by NBC as Dragnet 1967. Until
it was cancelled in 1970, Dragnet was always followed by
the year to distinguish the new series from its 1950s counterpart.
In the new series Friday was once again a sergeant, now paired with
Officer Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan). Though the style and format
of the show remained the same, the intervening years and the rise
of the counter culture had changed Friday from a crusading cop to
a dyspeptic civil servant, alternately disgusted by the behavior
of the younger generation and peeved at his partner's prattle about
mundane topics. The program's conservatism was all the more apparent
in the late 1960s as Friday's terse warnings of the fifties gave
way to shrill lectures invoking god and country for the benefit
of hippies, drug users, and protestors.
death in 1982 did not prevent another revival of Dragnet from
appearing in syndication during the 1989-1990 season. Two younger
characters filled in for Friday and his partner but the formula
remained the same. This little-seen effort failed quickly in part
because series such as Hill Street Blues and COPS had
significantly altered the conventions of realistic police dramas.
Those programs, and others like NYPD Blue, must be considered
the true generic successors to the original Dragnet. As the
archetypal television police drama Dragnet has remained a
staple in reruns and continues to be an object of both parody and
Sgt. Joe Friday......................................... Jack
Webb Sgt. Ben Romero (1951)................. Barton Yarborough
Sgt. Ed Jacobs (1952)......................... Barney Phillips
Officer Frank Smith (1952)........................... Herb
Ellis Officer Frank Smith (1953-1959)........... Ben Alexander
Officer Bill Gannon (1967-1970).............. Harry Morgan
Episodes 1967-1970 100
January 1952-December 1955 Thursday
9:00-9:30 January 1956-September 1958 Thursday
8:30-9:00 September 1958-June 1959
Tuesday 7:30-8:00 July 1959-September 1959 Sunday
8:30-9:00 January 1967-September 1970 Thursday
Christopher. Hollywood/TV: The Studio System in the Fifties.
Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.
"Detective Story." Newsweek (New York), 14 January 1952.
Richard G. "Jack Webb: The Man Who Makes Dragnet." Coronet
(New York), September 1953.
"Jack, Be Nimble!" Time (New York), 15 March 1954.
Patrick and Gary Coville. "Behind Badge 714: The Story of Jack Webb
and Dragnet (Part One)." Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), August-September
"Behind Badge 714: The Story of Jack Webb and Dragnet (Part
Two)." Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), October-November 1993.
Richard. "The Cops' Favorite make-Believe Cop." Saturday Evening
Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 26 September 1953.