4/16/08

The Drag


Jack Webb didn’t invent television, but he understood the form from the beginning better than anyone. Granted, Dragnet had already been a radio hit and much of television’s format had been borrowed from commercial radio. But Webb understood that, despite the added appeal of visuals, television retained the intimacy of radio. Unlike the Cinemascope majesty of theatrical motion pictures, popular television depended on establishing a quiet, personal relationship with the viewer. It was about telling smaller, economic stories, with small casts and limited locales, inviting viewers to spend time with familiar characters in familiar environments, almost as if spilling gossip about the neighbors over the backyard fence.

He understood that television could not be complex. The format was rigid; sponsor’s commercials had to appear in exactly the right spot, interrupting the story on the same beat each week. Worse, a complete story had wrap itself up in only 30 minutes, hardly time to gum up the works with ambiguous character development or multi-faceted issues. Television only had time for the simplest of ideologies, and anything too oblique was likely to upset the consumer confidence so necessary for TV’s bottom line. Television’s morality worked best in black and white. Two genres were ideal for the rigid new medium; the Western and the cop show.

It was perfect. A cop’s job is to solve crimes. All you needed to understand the premise of Dragnet was Joe Friday’s weekly opening monologue, where he explained, “I’m a cop.” A new crime each week, borrowed from the actual police files of the LAPD, plugged smoothly into the conflict/commercial/resolution formula of TV. And one thing Jack Webb had mastered was formula. He was the Henry Ford of television, applying no-frills, factory production methods to the art of the TV series. Dragnet opened and closed with the same voiceovers in every episode. Joe Friday’s story narration, written to mimic the reading of a dry police report, never strayed from its journal entry style (“Tuesday, April 19. It was hot in Los Angeles. We were on a routine stakeout on West 17th Street. The boss is Captain Brown. My partner is Bill Gannon. My name’s Friday.”). One imagines Dragnet scripts were pre-printed with a fill-in-the-blank format.

Stock shots often filled a good 25% of any given episode. Friday and Gannon (and Frank Smith before him) wore the same suits invariably, so the stock shots of the two men entering police headquarters or driving down Ventura Blvd. would always match. Sets were so spare as to often simply be one blank wall representing the interior of an apartment or business. If the scriptwriter (often Webb himself under a number of pseudonyms) were feeling apologetic, he might have a character explain the lack of furniture with, “We just moved in yesterday…and right away someone robs the place!”

To cut down on costly rehearsal time, Webb had his actors read from Teleprompters, further enhancing the minimal, monotone delivery that Dragnet was famous for. He kept a stable of actors close by to avoid unnecessary casting calls. The same handful of Dragnet regulars appear in a wide variety of roles. Virginia Gregg might appear as a con artist one week and a con artist’s victim the next. Many actors who appeared on Dragnet in the ‘50s returned to the series for its color episodes in the late ‘60s. But beyond Friday and Gannon, there is little consistency in the cast. Art Balinger might play Captain Didion in one episode and Captain Brown two weeks later. Webb knew you wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care if you did. The important thing was to get it done quickly and cheaply and get it on the air.

Close-ups helped. In the early days, Webb recognized that TV screens were small, and close-ups of faces or simple objects had the best chance of registering on a blurry little Philco. But it also cut down on costly backdrops. Some Dragnet episodes seem to consist entirely of nodding heads in close-up, batting dry, Teleprompted dialogue back and forth. When the series returned for its color run, some early episodes sported surprisingly lavish sets. But you can see when Webb becomes budget conscious again and returns to the blank walls, empty rooms and perpetual close-ups.

And this factory production, this penny-pinching art direction, is part of the show’s eternal charm. It is simple and formulaic to the point of insanity. But its simplicity is both visual and philosophical, particularly in the color episodes. Dragnet of the 1950s, despite its bizarre allegiance to the mundane, has a certain noir coolness on occasion. Webb knew the cinematic value of low-angled shots and sinister shadows, though they rarely came into play in stories about stolen purses or lost dogs. Joe Friday, though strictly a by-the-book man of the badge, seemed to inhabit the same LA that kicked Philip Marlowe in the gut. Though he never said it, Friday’s tough street lingo suggested he had a passing familiarity with hard drinks and loose women (Webb’s other hit radio character, the jazz jamming Pete Kelly, left nothing to doubt about his connections to the seedy underbelly of the big city).

But, by the late ‘60s, any subtle hint that Joe Friday was anything but the very embodiment of wholesome, Republican law and order went out the window. And it’s here, in the turbulent world of war protests and generation gaps, that the severe simplicity of the Dragnet Method fully flowers. No longer is the show simply a gritty drama about unwashed ex-cons knocking over liquor stores, Dragnet in the 1960’s becomes a propaganda vehicle for the LAPD, a “scared straight” PSA extolling the virtues of The Establishment to a viewership confused by the counterculture. Hippies, drug-addicted kids, LSD gurus, protesters and thinly-disguised Black Panthers are now the primary villains.

In addition to his awkward one-liners (“Unless you’re growing, sit down!”), Joe Friday is now prone to lectures. College professors and their confused students appear as empty-headed straw men, pitching Joe softballs about the harmlessness of marijuana, then sheepishly gazing at their feet when the wise Policeman’s superior logic knocks them out of the park. There are no two truths allowed on Dragnet. The public, whether flower children, crime victims, reporters, parents or simply concerned citizens are Wrong. Dangerously, stupidly wrong. Explaining basic concepts about social justice becomes Joe Friday’s full time job. It’s a wonder he finds the time to solve any crime with all the lecturing he’s now forced to do, straightening out citizens of all stripes about good parenting, police brutality and, especially, the danger of drugs.

Apparently, for an aging Jack Webb, it was no longer enough to gossip over the fence about criminals and their nefarious deeds. Formulaic simplicity wasn’t just a method of producing TV shows on the cheap; it was the founding principle that would clear up any confusion about morality from the freaks and the dropouts. Those close-ups and spare sets weren’t just frugality, they were meant to eliminate any confusing details, to keep us focused on a clear, simple message. The cop show was perfect for TV drama, but it was also the perfect educational film for America’s values. If there were any doubt about who was espousing a wrongheaded view of reality, that person appeared at the end of the program, looking shameful against a dull, gray wall, while a disembodied voice delivered their punishment. You are invited to wag a finger at the screen in judgment.

Did Webb merely bring the necessary simplicity of television to its obvious conclusion? Or was he a man who wanted to remake reality, to remove all the unessential details from his man-made reflection of the world until his personal Truth was revealed? Dragnet is hilarious, its simplicity of form and ideology so extreme as to be taken seriously only by the most brutally numbskulled. But Webb has the last laugh. Dragnet’s world is so streamlined as to be almost perfect. If we could change anything about it now, if we tried to impose any form of complexity into its near Randian cohesion, we would instantly ruin it. An episode of Dragnet where Joe Friday experiments with LSD, discovers police corruption that goes unpunished or faces an intellectual opponent he cannot match could never be shoehorned in without rendering the rest of the series null and void. Dragnet constructs a formula for reality that is unquestionable. Something that can only happen on television.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Ashley, this is nothing less than a brilliant critical analysis of the color Dragnet series. Which was badly needed, I can tell you. You should write more here about the lives and loves of Joe and Bill.

I'll call you on Saturday!