A popular book on television shows posits that the theme from Dragnet is
arguably the most recognized four notes of music since Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Who am I to argue? For a few years in the late Sixties, the ominous "dum duh
dum dum" meant earnest police drama, the righting of wrongs, the triumph of
good over evil. In the years since, it has become synonymous only with alarmist kitsch,
like those Fifties films about the Bomb and the Red Scare.
Before it spun off TVLand in the mid-Nineties, Nickelodeon had shed itself of
such campy fare as Dragnet and The Patty Duke Show. I was bereft, inconsolable. Those shows had provided hours of nostalgia for me, and hours of boredom for a boyfriend. Despite The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I left Nick at Nite an unhappy camper. The advent of Nick's TVLand cable channel seemed to offer vague hope there, but no. In a bid to fill 24 hours of airtime, we got such ho-hum, incredibly white-bread fare such as Family Affair and Mannix along with guilty pleasures like The Brady Bunch and Leave It to Beaver and genuinely good programming like Sanford and Son and Rhoda. Currently overburdened by shows like My Three Sons and Hogan's Heroes, the future began looking a little brighter in TVLand this week with the return of three Jack Webb shows that up the ante on the hoot factor.
After a successful run with Dragnet (1967-71), Jack Webb's production company,
Mark VII, tried its hand at other shows. Dragnet was about life on the beat
for two detectives in Los Angeles. Adam 12 was about two policemen on the
beat in Los Angeles. Emergency was about paramedics working the beat in Los
Angeles. Mark VII Productions also brought to TV The D.A. (1971-1972); O'Hara,
U.S. Treasury (1971-1972), and Project UFO (1978-1979) before Webb died
in 1982. One thing about Jack Webb, he liked variety.
Emergency was a turgid effort that aired on NBC from 1972-1977. The cast
was unremarkable except for the presence of ex-jazzbo Bobby Troup (who wrote "Route
66") and his wife Julie London, also known as the former Mrs. Jack Webb. The
ostensible stars were Kevin Tighe as Roy DeSoto and Randolph Mantooth as John Gage.
I can't imagine this show holding up well but if the hoot factor is adequate, it
could be great fun -- in one episode, the beleagured paramedics have to deal with
a fat woman who couldn't breathe because her girdle was too tight. Adam 12
was even more humorless, with lantern-jawed Kent McCord as Officer Jim Reed and Martin
Milner as Officer Pete Malloy. (Milner's film career was even more checkered than
Webb's. His best big-screen role turned out to be Patty Duke's nebbish hubby in Valley
of the Dolls.) It began the year after Dragnet and ran from 1968 to 1975,
also on NBC, and featured Webb's parade of the usual stereotypes, and juggled humor
with drama, albeit awkwardly.
In its first incarnation, Dragnet had been a black-&-white half-hour series,
running from 1952-1959, and starred Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday. Webb brought Friday
back to TV in 1967 with a new partner, Officer Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan), just in
time for the cultural revolution. And no one was as square as Jack Webb.
As an actor, Webb had an uneven film career, though his bit part as party boy
Artie in Sunset Blvd. is priceless. He also starred in The D.I. and
Pete Kelly's Blues. Married four times, including to actress Dorothy Towne
and torch singer Julie London, Webb was notoriously cheap as a producer. His stable
of actors was small and he used them often, giving some, such as Virginia Gregg,
their best shot at fame. The shoes he wore were a present from Richard M. Nixon,
and that mutual admiration society should say it all about Jack Webb.
Before M.A.S.H. and after Pete & Gladys, Harry Morgan was Bill Gannon, Jack Webb's sidekick on Dragnet.
Poor Joe Friday. Webb tried to make him look hip -- gave him a hip stereo in otherwise
austere surroundings, made jokes about his bachelorhood, showed him charming the
dames. Webb had three suits he rotated on the show and Friday was only seen out of
dress a handful of times. (He once wore a cardigan to a barbecue and also in the
more famous episode #96, "Night School." In this episode he busts a hippie
classmate for carrying marijuana. "Is that marijuana?" "No, man, it's
oregano for a pizza sauce. I'm a gourmet chef.") Watts may have been on fire
but Friday was busy busting suburban "juvies" for shoplifting. Even the
almost exclusively white criminals hurled cheesy epithets. ("When I get out,
I'm gonna waste you.")
But nothing Webb did on Dragnet was more hilarious than the depiction of
the counterculture. Pot parties were held in hippie pads and occasionally suburbia.
Hippies wigged out on grass, man, and climbed walls when dropping acid. Pills were
a big deal. In fact, drugs were death, causing Friday to demand of a tripping teen
in the famous "Blue Boy" episode, "You're pretty high and far out.
What kind of kick are you on, son?" In another episode, young parents blow grass;
naturally, their toddler drowns. In yet another, a Timothy Leary-type guru offers,
years before Fastball, to show "the Way."
Corny as it all was, Webb was the last of a dying breed, a true believer, a living
Boy Scout of a man. He was willing to stand up and be uncool because he believed
in his message: Crime doesn't pay (unless you've made it successful on television).
He was SuperCop for an America that only existed on TV, and his characters' morals
were his morals -- guilt was guilt. We loved him like a crotchety relative who refuses
to alter a routine, even to make it easier on himself. But why would he do things
the easy way? He was Jack Webb.