Dragnet is a radio and television crime drama about the cases of a dedicated Los Angeles police detective, Sergeant Joe Friday, and his partners. The show takes its name from an actual police term, a “dragnet”, meaning a system of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals or suspects.
Dragnet debuted inauspiciously. The first several months were bumpy, as Webb and company worked out the program’s format and eventually became comfortable with their characters (Friday was originally portrayed as more brash and forceful than his later usually relaxed demeanor). Gradually, Friday’s deadpan, fast-talking persona emerged, described by John Dunning as “a cop’s cop, tough but not hard, conservative but caring.” (Dunning, 210) Friday’s first partner was Sergeant Ben Romero, portrayed by Barton Yarborough, a longtime radio actor. After Yarborough’s death in 1951 (and therefore Romero’s, who also died of a heart attack, as acknowledged on the December 27, 1951 episode “The Big Sorrow”), Friday was partnered with Sergeant Ed Jacobs (December 27, 1951 – April 10, 1952, subsequently transferred to the Police Academy as an instructor), played by Barney Phillips; Officer Bill Lockwood (Ben Romero’s nephew, April 17, 1952 – May 8, 1952), played by Martin Milner (with Ken Peters taking the role for the June 12, 1952 episode “The Big Donation”); and finally Frank Smith, played first by Herb Ellis (1952), then Ben Alexander (September 21, 1952-1959). Raymond Burr was on board to play the Chief of Detectives. When Dragnet hit its stride, it became one of radio’s top-rated shows.
Webb insisted on realism in every aspect of the show. The dialogue was clipped, understated and sparse, influenced by the hardboiled school of crime fiction. Scripts were fast moving but didn’t seem rushed. Every aspect of police work was chronicled, step by step: From patrols and paperwork, to crime scene investigation, lab work and questioning witnesses or suspects. The detectives’ personal lives were mentioned but rarely took center stage. (Friday was a bachelor who lived with his mother; Romero, a Mexican-American from Texas, was an ever fretful husband and father.) “Underplaying is still acting”, Webb told Time. “We try to make it as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee.” (Dunning, 209) Los Angeles police chiefs C.B. Horrall, William A. Worton, and (later) William H. Parker were credited as consultants, and many police officers were fans.
Most of the later episodes were entitled “The Big _____”, where the key word denoted a person or thing in the plot. In numerous episodes, this would the principal suspect, victim, or physical target of the crime, but in others was often a seemingly inconsequential detail eventually revealed to be key evidence in solving the crime. For example, in “The Big Streetcar” the background noise of a passing streetcar helps to establish the location of a phone booth used by the suspect.
Throughout the series’ radio years, one can find interesting glimpses of pre-renewal Downtown L.A., still full of working class residents and the cheap bars, cafes, hotels and boarding houses which served them. At the climax of the early episode “James Vickers”, the chase leads to the Subway Terminal Building, where the robber flees into one of the tunnels only to be killed by an oncoming train. Meanwhile, by contrast, in other episodes set in outlying areas, it is clear that the locations in question are far less built up than they are today. Today, the Imperial Highway, extending 40 miles east from El Segundo to Anaheim, is a heavily used boulevard lined almost entirely with low-rise commercial development. In an early Dragnet episode scenes along the Highway, at “the road to San Pedro”, clearly indicate that it still retained much the character of a country highway at that time.