The origin of the police procedural can be traced to one series, Dragnet. While detective stories had been around for a while, series that showed the nuts and bolts of how the police perform an investigation were non-existent until 1949 when the first Dragnet episode aired on NBC radio. Since then, the distinctive theme tune and the matter-of-fact narration became hallmarks, recognizable in other works.
Dragnet was not just the prototypical police procedural. The series used files from the Los Angeles Police Department; the stories were true, with the name changed to protect the innocent. With the advent of television, Dragnet made the jump, with a TV series running concurrent with the radio show from 1951 to 1957, when the radio series ended. The TV series continued for two more years, ending in 1959. During the run, creator and star Jack Webb worked to ensure a high degree of accuracy to policies and procedures used by the LAPD. The jargon, the room numbers, the call signs, even the number of footsteps between offices were researched and represented accurately. Even Friday’s badge was authentic; the LAPD issued Badge 714 to Webb for the duration of the series and has retired the number in his honour.
Webb played Detective Sergeant Joe Friday of the LAPD. When the radio series started, his partner was Sergeant Ben Romero, played by Barton Yarbourough. The partnership did cross to the TV series, but when Yarborough passed away in 1951, so did Romero, as detailed in the episode “The Big Sorrow” on both the radio and TV. Afterwards, Friday had several partners, including Sergeant Ed Jacobs (played by Barney Phillips), Officer Bill Lockwood (Martin Milner), and, finally, Detective Frank Smith (originally played by Herb Ellis, then by Ben Alexander for the rest of the run on TV and radio).
Dragnet didn’t just focus on murders. While LAPD detectives wouldn’t normally handle a wide range of crimes, Friday and his partners investigated everything from homicide and armed robbery to missing persons and shoplifting. The idea was to show the police in action, no matter the crime. The amount of time each episode covered depended on the case. Some took months in reality. At least one episode, “City Hall Bombing”, took place in real time, as a bomber gave the LAPD thirty minutes to give in to his demands.
In 1967, Webb revived Dragnet. Ben Alexander wasn’t available to reprise his role as Detective Smith. As a result, Webb called in Harry Morgan to play Office Bill Gannon. The revival took advantage of colour technology and ran four seasons, when Webb decided to focus on his production company, Mark VII Limited, and its series, the Dragnet spin-off Adam-12, another police procedural focused on patrol officers Jim Reed and Pete Malloy. Adam-12 had its own spin-off, Emergency!, a paramedic procedural.
The lasting influence of Dragnet still can be seen in the police procedurals of today. While no show duplicates Dragnet exactly, the roots can be seen in shows like the Law & Order franchise*, which added the prosecution to the procedure, NCIS and spin-offs, showing procedures used by military police, and even Police Squad. However, audience expectations have changed. Audiences want to know more about the characters they return to week after week, so the police procedural has become the police drama.
In 1989, Dan Aykroyd co-wrote and starred in a theatrical release based on the series. Aykroyd played Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, the nephew of Webb’s character. With his partner retired from the LAPD, Friday gets a new one, this time from Vice, Pep Streebek, played by Tom Hanks. Harry Morgan returned as Bill Gannon, promoted to Captain and in charge of Robbery-Homicide. Unlike the original, the Dragnet movie was a comedy, not based on an existing case file, with Friday and Streebek becoming an odd couple. Aykroyd’s Friday delivered his lines in the same manner as Webb’s, deadpan.
A crime wave has hit Los Angeles. A new cult, PAGAN, People Against Goodness And Normalcy, is trying to take over the LA gang scene. It has made a few hits, including the entire run of Bait, a porn magazine run by Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman), police and other emergency vehicles, the mane of a lion, a wedding dress, and an anaconda. Caesar is also seeing pressure from MAMA – Moral Advanced Movement of America – a civics group run by the Reverend Jonathan Whirley (Christopher Plummer) and is worried about about being shut down. Friday isn’t happy to investigate, unlike Streebek, but will do so because that’s his job.
Friday and Streebek trace PAGAN and discover that a secret ceremony is about to be held. The detectives go undercover as members of the cult, where they find the stolen goods. The wedding dress is on a woman, Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul), who PAGAN will use as a virgin sacrifice. Friday rescues Connie briefly, only for he and Sweebek to be tossed into the snake pit with her. They save themselves and Connie and disperse the crowd. When they return later with Captain Gannon, the area is immaculate; no sign of the ceremony or any of the PAGANs can be seen. Connie did recognize the leader, though – Whirley.
Whirley has pull in the police department through Commissioner Jane Kilpatrick (Elizabeth Ashley) to have Friday not just pulled from the case but have his badge suspended. Streebek takes over the case and finds himself falling into Friday’s mannerisms. Friday, though, is still a cop and doesn’t leave the case alone. Whirley, though, has Friday and Connie taken again. Streebek manages to track the pair down in time. Once the full story is out, Gannon returns Friday’s badge and gun, allowing him to go after Whirley with the force of the law behind him. The Reverend manages to slip away, but Friday has one last method to catch up and make the arrest.
Aykroyd did his research. Any regulation cited is an existing one on the LAPD’s books. He has Jack Webb’s style of speech down pat to the point where, if the movie wasn’t a comedy, it’d be pitch perfect. The rest of the cast is solid, with Hanks and Aykroyd switching around the duties of the straight man. Even the main theme by Art of Noise fits. The main catch is that the movie was a comedy, a parody of the original.
In 1987, the nature of police dramas had changed since Dragnet was last on the air. Miami Vice showed the effects of working undercover. Hill Street Blues showed life at a precinct. Audiences wanted to know more about the characters they watched solve the crimes instead of just the procedures. A straight Dragnet movie wouldn’t have had the attention. At the same time, the movie could have passed as an episode if the more fanciful elements, like PAGAN, were removed. The result is a film that just misses being a superb adaptation, but all the elements to be one are there. Dragnet comes close, missing mainly on tone. Even taking into account the comedy, Aykroyd did well as Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, a role that Jack Webb made his own.
* Dick Wolf, the producer of Law & Order, even had a short run remake of Dragnet first airing in 2003 called L.A. Dragnet, with Ed O’Neill as Friday.