Dragnet & Adam-12: Dated? Sometimes Stilted? Yeah, But Also Timeless and, in Their Way, Cool
By Ken K. Gourdin
Dragnet and Adam-12 are not without their shortcomings. In some ways, they are less a reflection of genuine police work than they are of their creator, Jack Webb. The characters—both the cops and the crooks—often are flat. Often, they lack dimensionality and texture. True, victims are not flat in the emotional sense; if anything, victims tend to overact their roles. But Dragnet and Adam-12 are both proof of the old saying that “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In terms of themes, the most recent episodes for each show could have aired yesterday, even though the original run of each show aired its final episode in 1970 and 1975, respectively. The stories deal with such universal, timeless themes as generation gaps, “kids today” stories, “where did he (or where did we) go wrong,” stories, and stories of pride, greed, lust, jealousy, hatred, envy, malice—and sometimes murderousness. These themes have existed for all of recorded history, and they’re in no danger of fading away any time soon. So despite these shows’ dated and campy aspects, in that sense, they’re timeless.
These shows have—thanks to their creator, Jack Webb, who also played the inimitable Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet—left an indelible imprint on media dramatizations of police procedure for generations now. Perhaps no better evidence of this can be found than what I noticed when I recently watched part of an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, in which Ranger Trivette (Ranger Walker was otherwise occupied, apparently) was dispatched to a “211 in progress”—at a Dallas bank. Thus, either the California Penal Code has been adopted in another, far-away jurisdiction, or Webb’s influence really has been that pervasive. Another writer argues that Webb’s influence isn’t just timeless and pervasive—more than that, he’s cool. She says his skill as a director and as a cinematographer is overlooked. She writes:
Artistically, Dragnet was modeled upon the gangster and underworld movies of the 1940s—a genre we now call film noir. The TV show was shot on location in Los Angeles—the pre-freeway city of wide boulevards, rundown rooming houses, lonely people. Webb captured the stark atmosphere with quick camera shots, sparse dialogue, and action that often took place at night. The show portrayed police work as hard, tough, dirty–summed up in Webb’s classic prologue: “The city is Los Angeles. I work here. I’m a cop.”
Ironically, Webb’s genius has been overlooked because of the show’s lack of pretension. The acting and stories were so simple and straightforward that their accomplishment was missed. Only in retrospect do we finally recognize that as a director, Webb was an original and an artist. So next time you catch an episode of Dragnet on TV, try to remember that, though by the end of the show’s run Webb and his world view of hippies and the domino theory of drugs may seem dated, underneath that gray tweed sports jacket and behind Badge 714 there beat the heart of a man who knew more about syncopated cool than any of the “juvies” or the hippies he busted. Jack Webb was cool.1
It won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about my background—or even to anyone who’s read the blog for any length of time, even if we’ve never met, and even if what little you know about me comes from reading the blog—that, generally, I hold law enforcement in high esteem, just as Jack Webb did. As I’ve written on the blog before, it can be hard to work in law enforcement for very long without becoming cynical and jaded, and without concluding that there are only two kinds of people in the world: cops—and everyone else. And some (perhaps many) officers are determined to distrust everybody until the targets of that distrust prove they’re trustworthy, instead of doing the opposite. I believe, though, that, generally, law (including the Constitution), sound policy, and old-fashioned common sense and good judgment require that officers do the latter rather than doing the former, and that optimism that occasionally is betrayed is better than pessimism that’s always rewarded.
One might be tempted to think—and, admittedly, not without good reason—that cynical cop stories are like “dog bites man” stories. In other words, they’re not really news. But one of the things I’ve tried to do on the blog is to highlight the good things officers do, and to spotlight the fact that, in most cases, no one has less patience with bad cops than good ones. Another thing I appreciate about Dragnet and Adam-12 is the way both shows unabashedly hold up ideals such as law, order, justice, “by-the-book” policing, love of (and service to) community, the idea that if one is unwilling to be part of the solution, he is, thereby, part of the problem, and others. Did these shows (especially Dragnet) occasionally tend to lapse into stilted dialogue and preachy soliloquys? Perhaps; but I don’t mind if someone preaches to me—as long as he preaches truth.
I’ve written before about Thomas More’s conversation with Richard Rich in the play A Man for All Seasons, in which More asks Rich if he’d cut down law to get to the devil, and Rich says he’d cut down all the laws in England to do that, whereupon More then asks him where, after he’d done so, Rich would hide if he himself needed the benefit of law. One of the limitations of these shows is that there isn’t a lot of room for ambiguity and nuance in police work as they present it: no room for cases of mistaken identity, mishandled evidence, exploiting the system to pursue personal vendettas, and so on. But the fact is, whatever the limitations of a half-hour television show, the resolution of most low-profile cases—even of serious ones—really is as simple as officers following the evidence where it takes them.
Back when the earliest incarnations of Dragnet were in their original runs on the air, law enforcement really was largely a thankless job. Of course, officers didn’t have to worry about the legal “niceties” imposed on them by such court decisions as Escobedo v. Illinois, Miranda v. Arizona, or Mapp v. Ohio, and some officers weren’t above “third-degree” tactics back then. While some may argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same in this regard, I would say that such violations of a suspect’s rights are much rarer now than they were then, and even today, many more officers are concerned with doing the job in the right way (that is, in doing one’s best to apprehend guilty parties while paying due attention to civil rights) than simply doing the job right (that is, in apprehending an apparently-guilty party at any cost).
Some say the solution to failure to live up to arguably-dated ideals is to throw out the ideals, and to adopt a new paradigm more in keeping with “the times.” Just as I suspect Jack Webb would, with due respect, I disagree. Yes, it’s true that anyone who espouses a particular ideal but then fails to live up to that ideal is a hypocrite. It’s also true that this means that, at one time or another and to one degree or another, we’re all hypocrites. But that problem isn’t solved by throwing out the ideal: it’s solved by recommitting ourselves to redouble our efforts to live up to the ideal any time we fall short. That’s the best way—indeed, it might be the only way—to ensure that we can sleep at night and that we can look at ourselves in the mirror every morning.
Those are the kind of ideals Jack Webb tried to uphold, and he tried to create a world in which law enforcement officers, by and large, did the same, and in which those who did not were appropriately dealt with. Whatever shortcomings his efforts may have had, he deserves enormous credit for those efforts, and for the legacy he left both to law enforcement and to the public through them.
|1.||Charlotte Younger (No date), American Legends: Jack Webb, “Jack Webb: TV Noir,” (Web page), http://www.americanlegends.com/jackwebb/, last accessed February 6, 2015.|