Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wooden Detectives Somehow Remain Appealing

Against all odds, "Dragnet" lives on.

It's on DVD, of course, and you can stream some of it on Netflix, which is true of a lot of TV shows. Frankly I've always enjoyed the show, no matter how wooden the acting was, regardless of how embarrassingly hokey the story might have been. And, man, it gave new meaning to the words wooden and hokey.

Shot in documentary format, it's the least lifelike 30 minutes of police drama TV you're ever liable to see.

It's hard to pin down the Dragnet appeal. Others tried to do something similar, but never quite equaled the Dragnet mystique. There was Broderick Crawford in "Highway Patrol," but that didn't grab the mass market/cult following that the Jack Webb-created police drama had, and continues to maintain. Ditto for private detective Peter Gunn, or the 1960s series "77 Sunset Strip" and "The FBI," both with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

Could it be the terrible lighting that makes it so stupidly appealing? In the 1950s Dragnet was in black and white, and it looked like a noir crime drama. Then the show made a comeback in the 1960s and it looked like a set the Partridge Family could walk onto and not appear out of place. You can always spot a Jack Webb-produced police drama (Dragnet 1967, Adam 12) because every scene is lighted like a sitcom -- bright, no shadows.

Dragnet 1967 worked to erase any trace of doubts about the L.A.P.D. There were no shadowy figures, except for the shady characters and scum that Webb and Harry Morgan always brought to justice.

Residing in the "so bad it's good" category for decades, Dragnet appealed to the portion of its audience who took it at face value, and those who laughed up their sleeves at the clench-teeth, over the top drama of it all.

It was especially good whenever Jack Webb, as Joe Friday, would tell off the punks and ne'er do wells he so loathed. Or, in voice-over how he'd rattle off an unintentionally hilarious roll call of supposed slang names for various illegal drugs -- did anyone ever call LSD "The Hawk"? C'mon, Jack, get real.

My first reaction to Dragnet was that it stinks. But it's so funny and strangely compelling that I kept watching. And I still am. Officers Joe Friday and Bill Gannon are the most reliable, upright citizens you're ever likely to meet in Los Angeles, and that's oddly reassuring.

Somewhere, Jack Webb is having the last laugh.

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