“All we know are the facts, ma’am.”
Everyone out there, young or old, knows these words and the almost overly familiar theme song that follows them.
Dragnet is damn near an institution at this point and yet it is shocking how many of the Dragnet series have been lost to time.
Two cops working out of (usually) Robbery/Homicide would take you step by step, leaving out the superfluous material, through an investigation in the city of Los Angeles. Although the names have been changed to protect the innocent the cases are real (and it’s shocking how many of these from all of the seasons I remember reading about in the paper).
Beginning as a radio series in 1949 with the iconic Jack Webb as the equally iconic Sergeant Joe Friday, Dragnet was quickly brought to television in 1951 for a not insignificant 8 freaking seasons.
Right up until his death in 1982, Jack Webb would be the glue that would hold all incarnations of Dragnet together.
Revived again in 1966 for 3 seasons (plus a pilot movie strangely not aired until 1969) Dragnet was now a part of the pop culture mainstream. The stoic and matter of fact Joe Friday with his fast talking and intense delivery, his somewhat looser most of the time partner Officer Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan) and the instantly identifiable theme song and format were inescapable.
You can say Dragnet to anyone and they immediately know what you are talking about.
Dragnet was about the investigative side of police work with very much a procedural style to it whereas other cop shows of it’s era were getting into the personal lives of the officers Dragnet was mostly about the case with only minor bits of character thrown in. This was also true of it’s (kind of) spin-off Adam 12 which would focus on the street patrol side of police work. Adam 12 would also get it’s own spin-off later on titled Emergency which focused on EMT’s and Firemen.
By the 1970’s though Dragnet was not what it once was in terms of pop culture relevance. More than a few episodes of the previous show attempted to reach across the age gap and came off as pandering and became jokes (notably the episodes about hippies, drugs and comic book fans).
There would not be another Dragnet in Jack Webb’s lifetime, but in 1987 Dan Aykroyd would bring Dragnet back by starring in and writing a big budget film. Unlike all of the reboots and remake of today, the 1987 Dragnet was an actual continuation with Aykroyd playing the new Joe Friday as the nephew of the original and Harry Morgan even reprising his role of Bill Gannon (now the captain).
With the original series of Dragnet running in syndication all over the country (oddly the 1960’s series was much rarer) it was time to update Dragnet and to that end Aykroyd kind of succeeded. The Dragnet movie was both a parody and loving homage to the original series with Aykroyd’s Friday being pitch perfect and his co-star (a still on the rise Tom Hanks) being more of an 80’s goofball smart ass the movie only partially worked. The plot was meh but the character interactions were so funny and spot on that they alone make the movie worthwhile. Sadly audiences really didn’t care as the movie was not a bomb but was hardly a hit. It seems that Dragnet was just not really ready for the 80’s.
Aykroyd and Hanks do rap in character though, so that is something.
Well in 1989 as the 1980’s were in transition into the 1990’s there was yet another Dragnet series. This time actually called The New Dragnet it was partnered with the aptly titled The New Adam 12 and ran in first run syndication for 2 seasons. This time there was no Joe Friday character and while it was not expressly stated as such this time it’s pretty much a reboot although some episodes were virtual remakes of classic Dragnet episodes (or just remakes of the cases those were based on).
The New Dragnet was very low budget and outside of a few faces you might see on other syndicated programing the bulk of the guest cast in any given episode were actual Los Angeles residents more or less playing themselves. This worked out as well as you think it might, sometimes with not bad acting and sometimes with what looks to be people plucked right off the street and told to read a line. A strange thing about The New Dragnet is that since this was shot in 1989 in real Los Angles locations and streets you got to see quite a bit of the real LA. Batman the movie and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade billboards are EVERYWHERE in driving scenes (You can catch a brief shot of a Batman logo at the 35 second mark of the intro even).
With The New Dragnet and The New Adam 12 being sold as a package and being produced in the manner I found it odd there was never a crossover with a case started on Adam 12 (the beat cops) and followed up on in Dragnet. A missed opportunity I guess.
After the 2 seasons of The New Dragnet the franchise again went into hibernation until 2003 and this was a complete reboot this time.
Joe Friday was back (Ed O’Neill) and Law & Order’s Dick Wolf was in charge now. The 2003 Dragnet was a pretty smooth amalgamation of the format and style of the old series with the updated themes and harsher tone that was demanded in 2003 to the point I am kind of surprised that some of the violence in the 2003 show was allowed to air on ABC.
The 2003 series though was not without it’s own controversies though and it’s a really dumb one. In the pretty tight season one, Joe Friday’s partner was played by Ethan Embry who is a white male. The captain was a white male. The coroner was a white male. The DA was a white male… are you seeing where this is going?
People were complaining about how white and male the show, was so for season 2 Embry was dropped from the cast and other than Friday it was a whole new squad. A black cop, a Latino cop, a woman captain, a gay cop, etc… it was so diverse that it reeked of focus group bullshit.
Now do not get me wrong here, the quality of the stories was just as good, but that focus group mentality hurt the tone of the show as it felt like it was trying to hit a quota rather than be good television. Now the series was adding elements of the personal lives and emotional troubles of the officers as well (remember that what set the original Dragnet apart was the fact that it was a procedural and not a soap opera).
This led to falling ratings to the point the final three episodes of season two never even aired on ABC and had to be burned off three years later in USA Network reruns.
At the time of this writing that was the last attempt to do something with the Dragnet franchise but you know how Hollywood works, sooner or later someone with get the itch to try this again either as a mean spirited movie that hates the fans of the original series or as another TV show that won’t last more than a season.
Personally, I loved the 2003 Dragnet and if you can find it I say check it out.