Judge Victor Valdivia loves busting lefty communist hippie pinkos. He still does enjoy their music, though.
Our reviews of Dragnet (1987) (published June 29th, 1999), Dragnet 1969: Season Three (published December 13th, 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.
"My name's Friday. I carry a badge."
DVDs are a fact of life. Sometimes they're good, sometimes they're bad, but always they're there, and they need to be reviewed. That's where I come in. I wear a judge's robe. The boss is Chief Justice Michael Stailey. My editor is Appellate Judge James A. Stewart. My name's Valdivia. At 11 a.m. on June 11, I was given the case of Dragnet 1968: Season Two. I decided to check it out.
Facts of the Case
11:15 A.M.: I started by reading the file, by which I mean the liner notes on the back of the box. Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb, Sunset Boulevard) is a police officer with the LAPD. Along with his partner Officer Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan, M.A.S.H.), Friday solves various crimes involving punk kids, punk adults, punk men, punk women, and punk punks. Friday and Gannon interrogate witnesses, suspects, and anyone else who's just standing around, and then they arrest the perps and send them to trial, all in less than 30 minutes. This set compiles all twenty-eight episodes from the show's second season.
11:30 A.M.: I begin watching the episodes. Shot in 1967, they reflect in every way, shape, and form the concerns and values of white middle-class viewers of the era. All hippies are drug-crazed, longhaired smart-alecks who say "man" and "dig" a lot and smoke "the reefer." Anyone who dares to mention the thought of police brutality is clearly wrong. Teens who aren't popular and attractive are clearly maladjusted hooligans just itching to commit crimes. Minorities are not allowed to fight racism themselves; instead, they stand mutely by while Friday, the benevolent white cop, fights racism for them. I could call Dragnet simplistic, except that would be an insult to all simplistic things everywhere. In other words, it's what America would be like if it was run by Sarah Palin.
3:41 P.M.: Appellate Judge Stewart calls me into his office to go over what I've learned.
"You know what I first noticed?"
"How stilted the dialogue is. Notice how I ask a question and you don't attempt to answer it but instead respond with another?"
"That's pretty much every single dialogue exchange on this show. Nobody here, at any time ever, speaks like a real live person would ever speak. Jack Webb was famous for his stolid (or as some might say, inexpressive) line readings, but because he was the director and producer of this series, he made sure everybody else talked just like he did."
"That about right?"
"See, now you're doing it. This makes the dialogue downright painful to listen to after a while. It's like a screenwriting exercise from people who haven't fully mastered the English language."
"Well, you keep at it and report back."
(silent nods to each other)
5:15: P.M.: I learn something interesting in the file, by which I mean the liner notes: Apparently, Dragnet was one of the most popular shows amongst teenage viewers of the era. That's actually remarkable when you think about it. Of all the cop shows in TV history, Dragnet is easily the least likely candidate to be popular with young people. There isn't much if any action and the leads are, well, homely old guys. As a fellow homely old(er) guy, I can positively assert that teenagers are not likely to go crazy over those anytime these days. Also, the show relied entirely on dialogue and old-fashioned detective work, which is hardly visually exciting, especially since Webb's direction is workmanlike at best. That lack of visual pizzazz and statuesque leads makes Dragnet an odd choice for a big teen following. I can't imagine today's Gossip Girl or Jersey Shore crowd going gaga over, say, 60 Minutes, a show that looks as visually dynamic as Lost compared to Dragnet. I guess those really were different times, in more ways than one.
8:57 P.M.: Having worked overtime, I decide to call it a night. I check with the bunco squad (by which I mean IMDb.com) and notice that there was a rotating cast of supporting actors who appear in various episodes, frequently playing different roles. This is hard to notice when you're watching the episodes because their performances, as are those of every actor on the show, are so flat and one-dimensional. Everyone delivers their lines in the same monotone Webb himself uses. Then, when the scene requires them to emote, they merely raise their voices, though without much subtlety or nuance. These wooden performances make it hard to really care about any of the stories, since the criminals are all sneering punks and the victims and witnesses are all scared information dispensers. Every episode proclaims that it's based on a true story, but that doesn't mean that the acting should be so amateurish. That isn't going to convey authenticity any better.
7:50 A.M. Next Morning: I assess the total DVD package. Shout! Factory has done a decent though not overwhelming job with this collection. The full-screen transfer looks good for the most part, with vibrant colors and sharp edges. The films haven't really been cleaned up, however, so sometimes you'll have to endure some fairly noticeable scratches and dirt. The mono mix is actually quite crisp and loud. This is a dialogue-heavy show, so there's not much room for audio trickery, but it does sound clear. The special features are OK. The first disc includes the 100-minute pilot for Dragnet 1969, which proves definitively that what works at half an hour should not, under any circumstances, be stretched out to feature length. This extended episode has some interesting scenes but is so padded with filler that you'll be pleading to be arrested. The last disc includes a featurette titled "Jack Webb: The Man Behind Badge #714" (26:07), which consists of a roundtable discussion with several actors who appeared repeatedly in various episodes. All talk about how much Webb was loyal to his friends and gave them work whenever possible. Finally, the set includes the original "Dragnet 1969 Trailer" (1:02). It also comes with a twenty-page booklet with extensive liner notes.
8:40 A.M. I decide to try to investigate just what has made Dragnet such a pop-culture standard. I'd say that when something is made into a feature film with Tom Hanks and parodied on The Simpsons, it's a pretty safe bet that it's penetrated the general consciousness. So I canvass the neighborhood, knocking on doors and interrogating residents just as Friday himself does. The answers are all the same: "Who the hell are you?" "What the hell are you doing here?" "Get the hell off my property or I'm calling the cops!" Clearly, someone has gotten here before me and silenced the witnesses. Who could it be?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
9:20 A.M.: After much analysis, I realize why Dragnet, as badly dated and misguided as it is, is hard to really hate: It's just so earnest. This was clearly a labor of love for Webb, one that he truly believed in and fought for passionately. His pride in his show's following amongst young people, his insistence on using real crime stories as basis for the show's episodes, and his advocacy for policemen of all ranks all reflect that for Webb, Dragnet wasn't just a TV series, but a force for positive change. Whatever its many, many flaws, Dragnet's heart really was in the right place, which is more than can be said for many of the cynically manipulative moralistic shows of today.
9:54 A.M.: I can only come to one conclusion: Dragnet is only for nostalgia buffs. Sure, if you grew up watching the show, you'll be tickled by the stiff acting, laughable dialogue, and hamfisted moralizing. If you've never seen it before, however, you'll find it a relic of the worst kind. A few episodes are unintentionally amusing, but twenty-eight at a time will be more than most viewers can stand. Preview it first before buying.
The defendant—meaning Dragnet 1968: Season Two—was found guilty of being too hokey and old-fashioned for non-ironic consumption. A sentence of being dumped at the local used DVD store after the novelty wears off was imposed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Bonus Movie
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