Often imitated but never duplicated, Jack Webb's Dragnet has enjoyed long-lasting success in more than one medium. First appearing as a popular radio drama (airing from 1949-57 on NBC), Dragnet introduced Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, an honest cop who wasn't afraid to speak his mind. In more ways than one, Webb was the heart and soul of this police drama: as creator, director and star, his perfectionism and eye for detail helped the show maintain an atmosphere of authenticity. Produced in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department, Dragnet often pulled its stories straight from real-life cases...often only "changing the names to protect the innocent". Eventually, the success of the radio show led to a popular television series (1952-59), a series of books, a feature film (1954) and---for the first time in history, a revival of the television series (1967-70).
During this second TV run (commonly known as Dragnet 1967, or "the color version"), Webb's show shifted gears without straying from the strengths of previous versions. Friday's earlier partners---including Sergeants Ben Romero, Ed Jacobs and the long-running Frank Smith---proved that Webb needed company, so Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H*) was brought on board as Officer Bill Gannon. As a partner, Gannon's demeanor was similar to Frank Smith: he was often chatty and laid-back, but he was all business when it really counted. Their slight age difference (and marital statuses) created an interesting "odd couple" dynamic; Friday and Gannon were highly believable as work partners and friends off the clock, as was the case with Friday and his former sidekicks. Story-wise, it often seemed a bit less gritty than earlier incarnations; more often than not, stories revolved around with drug offenders, unruly youths, hippies and other elements of 1960s counter-culture. The public's attitude towards authority had changed dramatically during the last decade, so Dragnet continued to remind audiences that police officers were still public servants.
For all the slight differences, though---color, types of cases, a different partner, and even the decade---this still felt like the same old Dragnet, for all the right reasons. Webb's steady hand as director, star and frequent writer held the series together like glue, and his continued dedication to realism kept him on good terms with the LAPD for years to come. Dragnet 1967 lasted four seasons; like its black-and-white predecessor, it was retired voluntarily and not cancelled. This version also represents the Dragnet that most thirty and forty-somethings grew up with, thanks to syndication on networks like Nick at Nite and TV Land. During this second season---also known as Dragnet 1968, as was the series' custom---we see Friday and Gannon continue to uphold their sworn duty, protecting the streets of Los Angeles from scam artists, murderers, kidnappers and (gasp!) folks who occasionally smoke a joint. From start to finish, this six-disc collection includes the following hard-boiled episodes:
NOTE: Disc One and Disc Six include additional bonus features (see below)
"The Shooting Board"
"The Badge Racket"
"The Bank Jobs"
"The Big Neighbor"
"The Big Frustration"
"The Senior Citizen"
"The Big High"
"The Big Ad"
"The Missing Realtor"
"The Big Dog"
"The Pyramid Swindle"
"The Phony Police Racket"
"The Trial Board"
"The Christmas Story"
"The Big Shipment"
"The [Big] Search"
"The Big Prophet"
"The Big Amateur"
"The Big Clan"
"The Little Victim"
"The Suicide Attempt"
"The Big Departure"
"The Big Gambler"
"The Big Problem"
As a footnote regarding the episode count, a quick glance at several fan sites reveals that a 29th episode (titled "The Joyriders") was originally scheduled to close Season 2 on April 4, 1968. This episode was pre-empted for news coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination earlier that evening; appropriately enough, the ensuing riots would serve as the backbone for the Season 3 episode "Management Services". In any case, "The Joyriders" would later air as part of Season 3's regular lineup, so one has to assume that Shout Factory will maintain Dragnet's broadcast order for the next installment.
From top to bottom, there are plenty of entertaining episodes on board here; quite literally, these are some of the series' very best. Standouts include "The Grenade" (a troubled young man shows a pattern of violent behavior, seen above left), "The Shooting Board" (a fan favorite episode in which Friday's motives are called into question after he fatally wounds a petty thief in self-defense, above right), "The Big Neighbor" (an unconventional "bottle episode" in which Friday and Gannon unsuccessfully attempt to watch a football game), "The Big High" (an infamous and tragic episode about a pair of irresponsible parents, seen at top), "The Pyramid Swindle" (a cult-like moneymaking scam almost bilks dozens of residents out of their hard-earned money), "The Christmas Story" (a remake of 1953 episode "The Big Little Jesus", below left), "The Big Investigation" (Friday and Gannon dig up the past of a promising young Police Academy candidate) and many, many more. In all honesty, there's not a bad one in the bunch---and to be fair, some of the slower-moving episodes are simply the result of less exciting source material. Let's face it: murders are more exciting than perjury.
Speaking of source material, it's always been one of Dragnet's secret weapons...although it's not exactly a secret, in more ways than one. Each preface of "the story you are about to see is true" is, for all intents and purposes, a correct statement: though they're 100% reenacted and "the names have been changed to protect the innocent", the majority of story elements and details are right on point. Nearly all episodes were shot on location, copious facts were taken from the original police reports, and the crimes themselves were taken directly from cases in the immediate vicinity. Behind the scenes, notorious perfectionist Jack Webb would offer $50 for each case used in an episode (with an additional $50 for the department's coffee fund, as the legend goes), so it goes without saying that Webb and company always bent over backwards to maintain an air of authenticity. "Just the facts" weren't enough: a gritty but inviting atmosphere was also part of the formula, from the natural location shoots to the jazzy score by Frank Comstock and Lyn Murray. Dragnet's radio roots obviously required the right music, sound effects and atmosphere to make things work, so it's no surprise that such elements were ported over to the relatively new medium of TV. The combination worked perfectly for the long-running 1950's version, so it made sense to keep the formula going for old and new audiences alike.
Perennial pop culture enthusiasts Shout Factory have paid tribute to Dragnet 1968 by making sure it's finally seeing the light of day on DVD. Hard to believe, but it's been over five years since Universal released the 1967 season; initially, a follow-up was scrapped due to low sales. Thankfully, Shout Factory grabbed the licensing rights for this lovingly assembled six-disc release; likewise, Dragnet fans should grab their wallets to make sure Seasons 3 and 4 see the light of day as well. All things considered, this is a terrific release---and, at the very least, it's more consistently pleasing than Universal's 1967 collection. Let's take a closer look:
Presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, these episodes look relatively good overall. Several of the exterior shots, whether sourced from stock footage or not, look rougher than everything else---but considering the source material, it's not a major issue. What is more bothersome, unfortunately, are several instances of dirt and noticeable amounts of interlacing. The latter could be due to a flagging issue...and as for the former, dirt is generally kept to a minimum. For the most part, image detail and the show's natural color palette are preserved nicely; in fact, some of the close-ups are remarkably bold and crisp. Overall, Shout Factory's efforts are roughly on par with Universal's visual presentation (if not slightly better, since the episodes get more room to breathe), so fans should know what to expect.
In the audio department, it's roughly the same story: these episodes are presented in their original mono mixes, featuring relatively crisp dialogue and music cues. Obviously, both the show's age and modest budget come into play here, as Dragnet was never intended to have a strong dynamic range. Like the visual presentation, a few stray hiccups can also be heard along the way: there's occasionally a mild amount of clipping on the high end, as well as a few stray pops and other subtle interruptions. These problems are undoubtedly due to source material issues, as it's generally unknown what condition the elements were in before their partial restoration. In any case, none of these problems detract from the overall viewing experience...which, like the visual presentation, is better than broadcast quality.
Seen above, the lightly animated menu screens are as accessible and no-nonsense as the series itself. Each 25-minute episode is divided into five chapters, though no chapter sub-menus are present. A handy "Play All" feature has also been included on each disc, if you're up to the challenge. This six-disc set is housed in three slim keepcases, which have been tucked inside an attractive slipcover; also included is a 20-page booklet with an essay by Webb's late daughter Stacy, excerpts from Just the Facts, Ma'am: The Authorized Biography of Jack Webb by Daniel Moyer, behind-the-scenes photos and episode descriptions.
Unlike Universal's relatively slim Season 1 release, Dragnet 1968 arrives with a few entertaining and appropriate extras. Disc One includes the full-length Dragnet 1966 Pilot Movie (95:37, below left), which served as the introduction to the '67 series but never actually aired until 1969. As expected, this made-for-TV movie is significantly more in-depth and layered than the standard 25-minute episodes, allowing for plenty of time to (re)introduce the characters and their particular brand of justice. This particular outing---loosely based on the case of serial killer Harvey Glatman---involves the disappearance of several young ladies, so Sgt. Friday is called back from vacation to investigate. It's also the first appearance of Officer Gannon, as well as a number of soon-to-be familiar faces and locations. Aside from a slightly more dynamic visual style, Dragnet 1966 is a perfect microcosm of the future series (and the original series, in some respects), so it's easy to see why the network was eager to revive the popular franchise. Like the series itself, this full-length film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and supports Closed Captions. It doesn't look or sound quite as crisp as the episodes themselves, but it's still quite watchable.
The remaining bonus features can be found on Disc Six; leading things off is "Jack Webb: The Man Behind Badge 714" (16:16, below right), a roundtable interview with supporting actors Peggy Webber, Tom Williams (who also served as production assistant), Herb Ellis, and Jackie Loughery (Webb's former wife, interviewed at home). Moderated by Daniel Moyer (author of Webb's authorized biography, mentioned above), this relaxed session features a number of personal memories, production stories and candid photos of the late Webb. Several of these participants were also directly involved with other Mark VII productions, including Adam-12 and Emergency!, and it goes without saying that all four enjoyed friendships with Webb off the set as well. Combined with the retrospective essays in the accompanying booklet (see above), this provides a brief but fitting tribute to the late creator. It's unfortunate that Harry Morgan couldn't offer a few words---but at 95 years of age (!), I doubt he's in any condition to bother with bonus features. This interview is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 format and does NOT support Closed Captions.
Also on Disc Six is a brief Trailer for Dragnet 1969 (1:04), but this isn't a DVD commercial...it's a vintage ad for the "upcoming" season, which is certainly a nice touch. This one's obviously presented in 1.33:1 and also does not support Closed Captions---and it looks rough around the edges, but that simply adds to the nostalgia factor. Overall, fans should be pleased.
More episodes, more extras and more enthusiasm by Shout Factory make Dragnet 1968 a substantially more satisfying release than Universal's 2005 collection. These 28 episodes represent a solid cross-section of what made Dragnet so enduringly popular: colorful characters, memorable stories and a time-tested formula that kept audiences hooked. Though Webb's aversion to youth culture was never more transparent, that's what gives many of these episodes their charm---but whether you agree with his by-the-book philosophy or not, Dragnet remains as addictive as ever. Shout Factory has done an admirable job with this follow-up release, pairing a decent technical presentation with a handful of entertaining and appropriate extras (all the more impressive, considering the five-year gap). Overall, Season 2 is an eminently entertaining release that classic TV fans can finally enjoy...so whether you're a rookie or a die-hard Dragnet detective, this one's absolutely worth tracking down. Highly Recommended.
Related Link: Jack Webb article (from Time Magazine, March 15, 1954)
Randy Miller III is a law-abiding office monkey hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance design and illustration projects. In his limited free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.1>