"This is the city--Los Angeles, California." "I carry a badge." "My name's Friday." And who could forget "Just the facts, ma'am"? These lines, delivered in classic deadpan style by actor-director Jack Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday, are among the hallmarks of Dragnet
, one of television's earliest and most influential police dramas. And the appearance on DVD of all 17 episodes from the show's first season (1967), covering two discs (plus a third with a radio broadcast from 1954) and running more than seven hours, is a treat.
Decades after the fact, when vivid, often graphically violent cop shows like the C.S.I. and Law & Order franchises (all of them clearly owing a debt to Webb's show) dominate the airwaves, Dragnet seems tame, even quaint. Violence and gunplay are kept to a minimum. Special effects are non-existent, and many scenes are talky and static; "The Big Interrogation" takes place almost entirely in a single room in the police station, and includes a four-minute speech by Friday about the plight of a police officer ("You're a cop, a flatfoot, a bull, a dick, John Law
they call you everything, but never a policeman"). The stories are uncomplicated, the criminals are usually dunderheads, and "square" barely begins to describe the overall tone (witness "The Big LSD," a risible depiction of a "hippie" on a psychedelic sojourn). Still, one gets the feeling that we're laughing not at but with Webb, the writers, and the rest of the cast (including Harry Morgan, later of M*A*S*H*, as sidekick Bill Gannon). By about halfway through the season, with episodes like "The Big Candy Story" and "The Big Fur Burglary" (an almost whimsical tale wherein Gannon pretends to be an expert furrier), it appears that Webb and company are enjoying themselves just as much as the viewers are; at the same time, the characters' personal lives are explored in a bit more detail, which adds some welcome texture.
Sure, it's dated--everybody smokes, everyone's white, and character descriptions like "strange-behaving juvenile" are more common than not. But in the end, the Dragnet approach, stilted though it may sometimes be, is a refreshing antidote to the oh-so-hip cop melodramas that have come along since. Best, and simplest, of all, Dragnet 1967 - Season 1 is downright entertaining. --Sam Graham