PBS // 2008 // 55 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 5th, 2011
"As viewers reveled in being transported to shadowy underworld, creative geniuses emerged."
I don't know quite when it started (perhaps around the birth of detective fiction in the mid-nineteenth century, or maybe with the later rise of yellow journalism), but Western culture became obsessed with criminals and crime. They were a staple of newspapers, popular on radio, and eventually made their way to TV and movies. Several of the most popular dramatic series of all time fit into the rather broad category of the crime drama, and Pioneers of Television: Crime Dramas tries to capture the early years of the genre. Using interviews and archival footage, the 55-minute PBS documentary looks at the introduction and evolution of television crime show from Dragnet up through I Spy and Hawaii Five-O, including all the ground they broke during the tumultuous times of their airing.
Pioneers of Television: Crime Dramas starts with Dragnet (which was started by Jack Webb on the radio), and interviews as many of the living participants from those early shows as it can in 55 minutes, interspersing their comments with clips that illustrate the famous shows, from Mission: Impossible to Columbo, presenting a fascinating history that sits alongside the social and political histories from the Thirties to the Eighties.
The single best thing about Pioneers of Television: Crime Dramas is the interviews. The television shows being talked about are half a century old in some cases, and their stars are not spring chickens. In that light it's great to see Martin Landau, Leonard Nimoy, James Garner, Angie Dickinson, and Bill Cosby discussing their eras from their personal experience. They're all getting on in years, and this film will surely stand as a great resource for future TV fans to understand one aspect of the eventual evolution of crime dramas on TV.
The other really great thing that Crime Dramas does is hone in on the ways in which crime dramas broke new social ground. I Spy was the first time a white character and an African American character had shared the story as equals. Angie Dickinson as Police Woman broke ground for having a woman play the lead in a dramatic series, and Hawaii Five-O featured more balanced portraits of non-white characters than had appeared anywhere else. Although the interviewees are a bit "aw, shucks" about their contributions to television history, the feature itself doesn't back away from the important of these moments.
As far as watching the show is concerned, the 55 minutes sweep past on a fast-paced combo of interviews and archival material. The film follows a rough chronology, dealing mostly with one show at a time, and moves quickly between them. Even if you're only interested in one or two of the featured shows, the documentary goes by swiftly enough to make even the less interesting shows worth sitting through.
The DVD is a barebones affair. The feature is presented in a fine widescreen transfer, and the archival footage looks surprisingly good. The interviews were shot talking-head style, and look as good as contemporary footage should. No serious compression or artefacting problems mar the picture. The audio is a simple stereo mix that keeps the interviewees easy to hear and understand, and subtitles are included for your reading pleasure. There are, however, no extras.
I have two complaints about Pioneers of Television: Crime Dramas. The first is that the wealth of archival footage is cropped to fit into the widescreen frame. Considering the fact that this show is all about putting these crime dramas in their historical context, lopping off part of their images seems like a bum move. It's nothing to throw a fit about, but it is a dubious choice worth noting for fans of the shows. My other complaint is with the lack of extras. Just the outtakes from the interviews would send this disc over the edge into greatness. Although I wish them well, people like Leonard Nimoy, Bill Cosby, and James Garner are not going to be around forever, and getting to listen to them talk more about their careers would be a fascinating insight into television and cultural history.
For those with a love for early crime shows, Pioneers of Television: Crime Dramas is a welcome documentary that goes right to the source for info on early TV crime shows. The interviews are interesting, the archival material extensive, and the pacing swift, making this easily worth a rental for TV fans. The lack of extras is a bit of a disappointment, but the feature is still worth a look. Buyers should note, though, that this is a standalone episode of a four episode miniseries, and all four episodes are also available in a single release.
Unlike the criminals they go after, Crime Dramas is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 55 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated