It was cold in Los Angeles. Judge Clark Douglas wears a badge. These facts are unrelated.
Our reviews of Dragnet (1987) (published June 29th, 1999), Dragnet 1968: Season Two (published July 6th, 2010), Dragnet 1970: Season Four (published April 12th, 2011), Dragnet 1967: Season One (published September 28th, 2005), and The Tom Hanks Comedy Favorites Collection (published March 5th, 2007) are also available.
This is the city—Los Angeles, California.
"We work for the people."
Facts of the Case
Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb) has been a member of the Los Angeles Police Department for many years. The city has changed a great deal, but Friday remains the no-nonsense, incorruptible figure he's always been. It's the late '60s, and these days Friday and his partner Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan, M*A*S*H) are forced to confront racial tensions, anti-war protestors, rampant drug use and ambiguous social values. Will their old-fashioned brand of justice prove effective in a changing world?
All 27 episodes are spread across four discs:
When Dragnet debuted on radio in 1949 and on television in 1951, it stood apart from most of the other police dramas of the era. Its terse, razor-sharp dialogue, stark theme music, gritty tone, and willingness to tackle tough subject matter earned it a great deal of controversy. The radio episode "A .22 Rifle for Christmas" was a remarkably grim, moving endorsement of gun control that came under fire from the Nation Rifle Association and other right-wing organizations. However, as times changed, Dragnet remained the same in every incarnation. Joe Friday's unwavering moral compass seemed reasonable in the 1950s, but in hazy days of the late '60s the character came across as stubbornly conservative. Joe Friday was never a man who had any tolerance for gray areas or ambiguity. The law was the law and he was bound to enforce it. You break it, he arrests you. The rest was just noise.
The show was off the air for the better part of the 1960s, but re-emerged as Dragnet 1967 in…well, 1967, naturally. For each of this incarnation's four seasons, the show would change its name each year. Thus, we have the somewhat confusingly-titled Dragnet 1969: Season Three—it's the only season of Dragnet 1969 but the third season of the rebooted Dragnet. Got it? Good.
Jack Webb was not only the star of the show—he was also its guiding creative force. The manner in which Webb opens Dragnet 1969 is actually kind of brilliant. It's an episode entitled "Public Affairs," and it features no crime and no investigation. The premise is simple: Friday and Officer Gannon are invited onto a left-leaning talk show to engage in a debate on the validity of the police department. Their opponents are the free-spirited publisher of a radical liberal newspaper and a stuffy intellectual. In this episode, Webb spends the full running time of the program examining this debate, essentially using it as a springboard for Joe Friday to (A) answer critics of the program's unwavering support of the police department as a force of good and (B) provide new viewers with an overview of the show's ethos.
It's a fascinating way to kick off the series and a legitimately compelling conversation. Subjects such as police brutality, racism, experimental drug use, and the idea that the police department is controlled by "the establishment" are discussed. Though the liberal characters certainly come across as a bit pompously cartoonish at times, the questions they ask are legitimate and the answers Webb provides equally so. Though many will disagree with Friday's strictly conservative approach, one at least has to admire his consistency—in Friday's eyes, the law is the law. Regardless of the reasons one has for committing a crime, if a crime has been committed the criminal must be arrested. Friday's unwavering commitment to this idea is part of what makes him such a compelling character; he seems less an irritable authority figure than a man working tirelessly to uphold his code.
Whatever flaws the updated version of Dragnet may have, simply watching Webb play the role of his career makes the show worth watching in any incarnation. Though this was near the end of his run, Webb is clearly still in top form as an actor. The fast-paced dialogue exchanges with his colleagues haven't slowed down a bit and the lines in Webb's face add a good deal to his world-weary persona. Harry Morgan does a fine job in the often thankless role of Officer Bill Gannon; making the most of an underwritten part.
The DVD transfer is okay, with a moderate amount of scratches and flecks present throughout. There's also a good deal of softness at times, and a bit of color bleeding during the credits sequences. Still, it's a sturdy transfer in contrast to many shows of this era. Audio is crisp and clean throughout, with an emphasis on dialogue. Supplements include a vintage black-and-white episode of Dragnet ("The Big Smoke") and some vintage promos.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Dragnet frequently slipped into heavy-handed sermonizing, but man, Dragnet 1969 is awfully preachy even by this franchise's standards. Far too many episodes play like after-school specials, with painfully earnest and painfully dated attempts at being socially relevant. A small handful of shows like this might have served as a nice change-of-pace, but almost every episode of Dragnet 1969 attempts to be, "A Very Special Episode." There simply isn't enough nuts-and-bolts crime drama; a real shame considering how well Dragnet handles that sort of thing.
In addition, some of the socially conscious episodes are awkwardly misguided. One episode that aired mere months after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. examines the police department's attempt to deal with the aftermath of that tragedy. Alas, the show barely acknowledges the country's significant loss, as the episode centers on the headaches the police face when dealing with the violent reaction in segments of the African-American community.
Though the dated nature of Dragnet 1969: Season Three made me wince on more than one occasion (this incarnation just hasn't held up nearly as well as its black-and-white predecessor), I have to admit that I still found much of it enjoyable. It's not essential Dragnet, but it's worth a look nonetheless.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Bonus Episode
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