When I first heard that Dick (Runnin’-Out-Of-Law-and-Order-Franchises) Wolf was producing a new version of Dragnet, my first thought was, “Which Dragnet?” Depending on your age, the venerable cop series was either: a noir-ish b-&-w low-budget police procedural starring Jack Webb, a full-color debate-athon deifying Jack Webb or a moderately amusing movie comedy featuring Dan Aykroyd.
After viewing the premiere of this newest, “Inspired by Actual Events” model, I’d say the producers are going back to the show’s earliest radio/teevee incarnation. (So does that mean no five-minute monologues on What It Means to Serve-&-Protect?) The 21st Century Joe Friday (Ed O’Neill, looking his usual lumpy self, but reserving the Al Bundy hostility for those who deserve it: pedophiles & “media maggots,” for instance) still engages in crisply delivered sentence fragments – though not to the point of 60’s Webb-ian self-parody – and still appears to have no life outside the job. He works out of Robbery/Homicide under a suitably stern-looking Lindsay Crouse and has a youngish partner Frank Smith (Ethan Embry – nuthin’ like the original fat model) just out of Vice. As if to emphasize the age discrepancy between Friday & Smith, at one point we see the former put on a pair of reading glasses.
The cases & suspects confronting our duo are way seedier than anything the old crew would’ve handled:
a copycat serial rapist/killer imitating the Hillside Strangler;
a groupie w./ a backyard full of pet rabbits that she’s named after famous psycho killers (Jeffrey D., Ted B., David Byrne – just kidding!);
a collector of murderer memorabilia (Coen Brothers regular Jon Polito), who eliminates himself as a suspect by showing Smith & Friday a prostate surgery scar.
The whole hour I kept expecting O’Neill’s character to break into one of his patented expressions of Bundy-esque disgust, but to the actor’s credit, he never did.
Friday narrates in his familiar clipped style (wouldn’t be Dragnet if he didn’t, right?), and at one point, they put a neat fillip on the whole voiceover spiel by using it to reflect our hero’s thoughts as he comes upon the big clue that’ll break open the case. Like most cop shows these days, the camerawork is grittier and less hero worshipful. (One of the few details I recall from a trip to Universal City as a kid was the fact that 60’s-era Dragnet sets were one of the few on television to include ceilings, since Webb was fond of placing the camera so it looked up at its hero cops.) Not much different from an ep of Law and Order or C.S.I., actually, though we still get those great epilogues tallying off the guilty party’s sentence.
If the show has any fatal flaw, it’s in its pacing. Even in its half hour format, Webb’s Dragnet could be excessively deliberate. But at an hour there were moments when even the refs to premature ejaculation, semen traces & sado-masochism finery didn’t suffice. Yet just when I’d start to mentally drift, Friday would do something like persuade the uncooperative serial killer groupie by threatening to report her pets to Animal Control. Don’t recall Jack Webb threatening a hutch of bunny rabbits, though I bet he could have . . .
UPDATE: Cartoonist & encyclopedic comics fan Fred Hembeck has a new blog, and he discusses the new Dragnet, mentioning the one important aspect of the show that I missed above: its four-note theme song. It’s a lot less ubiquitous than it was on the old show (they don’t use it to punctuate every li’l dramatic point), but as arranged by ol’ pro Mike Post, the theme’s been inoffensively updated without losing its original flavor. In any event, it definitely beats the lame rap song they used to cap the Aykroyd flick. . .