Dragnet and the Big Idea
What was the “first” cop show to appear on television? Dowler (2016) writes “depictions of police did not fully appear until the emergence of Dragnet" (1951-59), though a short-lived Stand by for Crime preceded the appearance of Sergeant Joe Friday, the show's awkward and angular lead character. Dragnet aired 276 episodes, all but one containing the word “big” in the title, though it was a brisk, 30 minutes. From its indelible and oft-imitated opening – Dum-de-dum-dum!– through its ending in which the culprits were always corralled, each show pulsed with a singular intention, a focussed message, a big idea: the police are not merely enforcers of the law, they are moral agents. The program, dubbed by The Atlantic (2016) as “the most influential police procedural ever,” was shot in a quasi-documentary style, aesthetically evoking the noir, crime photographer Weegee. The Los Angeles Police Department actively participated in production, adding an aura of veracity and value. This was not executed with a light touch. Consider “The Big Actor” (January 1951), the first “big” episode. Here, Friday (series creator Jack Webb) and partner investigate a narcotics robbery at All Saints Hospital. There, crucifixes and allegory cloak the pair. Theirs is not only a moral crusade guided by Kantian absolutes, it’s a religious one central to The Establishment. There’s also some pre-Miranda-rights legal assumptions and confirmatory bias: “We didn’t know who he was, we didn’t know where he was, but we had to get him,” the sergeant says (author’s emphasis—Friday had a singularly, signature monotone). At the station, it’s all hard-boiled cop speak. This banter pierces the miasma of tobacco plumes, verbiage that lends an air of righteous professionalism and rigid protocol as officers question a suspect. But this is important, he is not a suspect, he’s a perpetrator, an inherently bad guy with a drug habit. He is evil and when interrogated is quickly eviscerated into a pool of sweat and confession. The show’s coda, “In a moment, the results of that trial,” is unnecessary. Morality, then as now, is firmly in the grasp of the police.