Police drama, a pioneering series of
unprecedented realism (1949 - 1957)
"Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true.
Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."
In official police terminology, a dragnet is based on a fishing technique of dispensing a large fishing net hanging vertically in the water used in commercial fishing practices—once the drawstring is pulled on the net the fish have little hope of escaping. This technique is similar to a coordinated police investigation that canvasses a large area to trap criminals.
Producer-Actor Jack Webb stared in many old time radio shows prior to Dragnet often as a detective or another member of law enforcement such as in Jeff Regan, Johnny Modero: Pier
23 and the comedy series, Pat Novak. In these earlier crime-solving radio shows, he developed his memorable and distinguished voice cadence and deadpan delivery used in his characterization of Sergeant Joe Friday.
The series covered crimes ranging from check fraud, petty theft, and bunko detail to more sensational topics like murder, drug abuse, and taboo topics such as sex crimes and child abduction and murder. With a semi-documentary style, realism would be the show's feature. Webb began hanging out at police headquarters, riding with detective teams on house calls. He attended classes at police academy, becoming fluent in police terminology and technique.
Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) provided technical advice throughout the show's run. He was such a supporter of law enforcement, that he felt his show was a public service to dispel negative views of police departments. Jack Webb's portrayal of Sergeant Joe Friday was so realistic that citizens would ask to see him at the LAPD police headquarters. The show was also applauded for its positive portrayal of police officers in so much as upon the death of Jack Webb Friday's badge number 714 was retired.
The sound effects are some of the finest in radio history with complicated and layered sounds for each scene. With five sound effect technicians, complex scenes involving interviews with witnesses would take place in publishing warehouses, high schools, steel yards, or other multifaceted-sounding locals.
In the beginning of the show's run, Barton Yarborough co-starred as Sgt. Ben Romero whose name was comically mispronounced by almost every witness while being interviewed. Chronically laidback Romero was older than Friday served a mentoring role; he was married with children and struggled with balancing police and family life. When Barton Yarborough suddenly died of a heart attack, his death was written into the script in episode " Big Sorrow" (Volume 2: Dragnet 511227 e133 Big Sorrow).
Later Ben Alexander filled the role as Joe Friday's partner as Frank Smith, and often added comic relief when complaining to Joe about his mundane life—everything from his wife's spending or the in-laws staying in town. However, unlike the single and straightforward Joe Friday, Frank Smith humanized the policemen with his common day-to-day problems and ordinary communication.
Often shows were moralizing in theme, such as in:
- "A Rifle for Christmas where Joe Friday practically blames the parents for the death of their child for an inappropriate gift. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was up in arms after this episode saying that it portrayed child gun ownership in a negative light. Different versions of this dark Holiday show were aired multiple years. (Volume 1: Dragnet 491222 e030 Twenty-Two Rifle for Christmas)
- In "Big Sophomore, Unwed alcoholic mothers were the source of juvenile crime in the episode, which featured a red headed petty thief (Volume 2: Dragnet 510719 e110 Big Sophomore).
- In "Big Seventeen parents were blames for Juvenile drug offences . Though it is doubtful that real police sergeants berated parents and criminals regularly, this aspect of the show was perhaps a platform for Jack Webb's own beliefs about downfall of America's youth. (Volume 2: Dragnet 510906 The Big Seventeen)
Dragnet is not merely a radio, television shows nor film; it is an American institution with its characters ever immortalized in popular culture. Its was one of the first law enforcement procedural dramas bringing police boredom, danger, and heroics into the homes of Americans influencing popular opinion of police departments across the country.
For special Jack Webb appearances in such
series as Jack Webb Show, Jeff Regan, Investigator,
JOHNNY MADERO, Pat Novak for Hire, and Pete Kelly Blues, (all available in the The Jack
For more law enforcement excitements see The Line Up, Nightwatch, Police
District Attorney, and This
is Your FBI. See also I Devise and Bequeath. For a list of OTRCAT favorites, see also: Best of Dragnet.
For more true police stories see also: