Dragnet and the Big Idea

Curator's Note

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.


Thanks David for this intriguing piece that encapsulates so much about what makes Dragnet an important and problematic text for thinking about the ways in which law and order has been presented to American TV viewers. The ideas of professionalism or as Joe Friday would say "just the facts" in the 1950s assured viewers that the police were professional and efficient, and as you acknowledge there was also an assumption that anyone who committed a crime was guilty and a posed a real danger to the society. In making the cops seem more like moral arbiters as you note and the show highlights it creates a sense that the police are not only righteous but that they are infalliable. These two aspects of the series which were the result of Webb's conservative politics and deep commitment to the narrative presented to him by the LAPD. They illustrate the challenges of discussing these series and their larger influence because for some viewers the show was entertaining but for others it provided them with the assurance that policing worked for everyone and protected everyone equally, which as we should all make note of is far from the truth because these narratives are ensconced in the values of white, heterosexual, Americanness rather than presenting the real complexities of the American story and American people.

Thanks for this, David. Your point about this being a relious calling seems particularly apt in this episode in which Sgt. Friday gathers evicence from the nuns. What I find particulary interesting is the way the episode (an the series) distances itself from other forms of detective fiction in that very scene wit the nun, who seems enamored of the work of detection bu filters it through G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, which Friday treats as a funny diversion. The religion here is the facts, and facts will lead to the results that cannot be sullied by uncertainty. 

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