Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"My Name's Friday" - 5 Years Later


I'd requested a color section for My Name's Friday, but it wasn't in the publisher's budget. So now I get to post one.

My Name's Friday was released five years ago; since that time I've been interviewed on broadcast, satellite and internet radio, as well as on cable TV, countless times. The first question is almost always the same: "What made you decide to write a book about Jack Webb and Dragnet?"

The answer is simple: the man and the show deserved one.

By the time My Name’s Friday came out, Webb and his most famous creation had taken quite a drubbing over the years, most recently at the hands of cable’s TV LAND. Once upon a time, TV LAND trumpeted its vision of “preserving our television heritage.” No less an icon than Dick Van Dyke was its spokesperson. Yet once they got their hands on Dragnet (specifically the revival series Dragnet 1967-70), they turned Webb’s Joe Friday into a joke; an extension of Dan Aykroyd’s parody version from the 1987 feature film. Instead of celebrating Dragnet’s undeniable influence on police drama, or Webb’s contribution to television, TV LAND’s promos simply made Sgt. Friday out to be a humorless, obtuse, one-dimensional police hack, blind to the flaws of the Department he served.
This approach was in keeping with latter-day criticism, which belittled Dragnet for being reactionary, for brooking no shades of grey, for unrealistically portraying the counterculture, for daring to suggest that the LAPD stands for honesty, integrity and solid police work. Granted, a few episodes from the revival years unwittingly provided ammunition for critics, but it was irresponsible to tar the entire series with the same brush – and yet, that’s what happened.

More distressing was how latter-day TV producers – with the notable exception of Dick Wolf – tried to distance themselves from Webb and his “controlled,” “deadpan” approach to filmmaking. Richard Levinson and William Link (Columbo), Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) and others went on record declaring that Dragnet had no influence on their shows – or if it did, that they went out of their way to do the opposite.

But it’s no use. As I wrote in the Epilogue: “Every time a TV cop questions a colorful witness, uses a code number to describe a crime, advises a suspect of his rights, fills out paperwork, or engages in light banter with his or her partner, the spirit of Sgt. Friday is there. Every drama series of any genre that heightens suspense through close-ups, music and terse dialogue is walking down the trail blazed by Jack Webb.”

I did not want it forgotten that, back in the day, Webb was hailed as a genius – the man who had lifted TV out of the dark ages. Dragnet proved that television drama did not have to be live to be critically acclaimed or highly rated. With his liberal use of close-ups, Webb proved the intimacy of television would be its greatest asset. The rerun series, Badge 714, proved to TV execs that off-network syndication was where real profits could be had. The 1954 feature proved that audiences would pay to see their favorites on the big screen. The 1967 revival proved that a cancelled series could make a successful return.

And so I wrote My Name’s Friday. Would it make a difference? I certainly hoped so. Leonard Maltin called me and said he thought the book was “dynamite – just terrific.” The Mystery Writers of America – one of the first professional bodies to recognize Dragnet’s greatness, thrice honoring it with its distinguished Edgar Allan Poe Award - accorded My Name’s Friday the honor of an Edgar nomination.

The week the book was released, TV LAND pulled Dragnet 1967-70 from its schedule.

Five years later, sadly not much has changed. Webb’s oeuvre has not undergone any sort of critical re-evaluation – his legacy has gone from genius, to joke, to invisible. Four years ago, Dick Wolf brought Dragnet back as an hour-long drama that, despite mostly positive reviews, was ignored by audiences; an attempt to “revitalize” the format proved a disaster. Last year, Universal Home Video released a DVD set of the seventeen Dragnet 1967 episodes – arguably the best of the revival years. Sales were only fair, and there are no present plans to market the remaining three seasons, much less provide an authorized release of the original series. Consequently, it’s unlikely that the Webb theatrical features (Pete Kelly’s Blues, The D.I., etc.) will ever receive the special edition treatment. It’s our loss.

In 1987, director William Friedkin (The French Connection) said, “I’ve never seen a better police show than Dragnet.” There’s a reason for that.

15 comments:

ericpaddon said...

I like to think I was one of those who was able to discover "Dragnet" for the first time in the Nick and TV Land repeats and look past the mocking the show received and see what a good show it was (admittedly though I still sometimes impulsively find myself recalling that "Know Your TV Rights" lyrics from one of the spots when I hear the fanfare). And now, after going through the entire run of the show again recently, and listening to many of the radio shows (I do feel that the 50s shows are better on radio than on TV, which may be heretical but I heard about a hundred radio shows before I ever saw a 50s TV episode, and my mind's eye just never envisioned all the tight close-ups) the genius of what Webb accomplished in police drama sticks out all the more. When I listen to another cop or detective drama from radio's golden age I always find the results lacking because Webb brought an entertaining authenticity that was so refreshing for its time and remains fascinating to keep returning to again and again.

Michael J. Hayde said...

The "Know Your TV Rights" jingle was from Nick-at-Nite. I didn't consider that particularly offensive. It was TV Land's smarmy sarcasm that pissed me off. The shark-jumping moment was when they dumped Dick Van Dyke and started using Tim Conway.

Your point about the radio Dragnet episodes and their TV counterparts isn't heretical among the OTR crowd - it's their mantra! Television can never compete with the imagination... but I don't ask it to.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that the Dragnet with which most people--including yours truly--are familiar is the '67 version. The original sounds much better, although I'm not a big enough fan to seek it out. (If it ever comes out in an authorized DVD, though, I'll probably bite.) The color shows seemed almost to be self-parody, what with Friday's endless speechifying, Gannon's lame jokes, and the rather over-the-top drug use portrayals. Worse yet were the "community involvement" episodes, which didn't even revolve around an investigation and just consisted of endless talking about how to get the community involved in crime prevention or how to get people to respect the (white man's) laws. A greater variety of character actors would have been helpful, too, although I imagine the fact that one guy is a cop one show, a crook two shows later, and a victim five shows after that is far more noticeable in daily reruns than it was in weekly installments.

ericpaddon said...

In fairness, it was only in Season 3 (Dragnet 1969) that we got an overabundance of "community affairs" type shows and hardly anything in the way of some actual crimes to investigate (one of the nice exceptions that year for me at least was Burt Mustin's appearance as the owner of an apartment complex whose seeming interference with a murder investigation is making Joe and Bill think of him as a suspect...until they realize he's a retired Chief of Detectives!). Season 1, which is on DVD is more traditional "Dragnet" and Season 2 IMO is quite strong. After the weak Season 3, Season 4 picks up a bit again and has a number of solid episodes.

Truthfully, I'd feel a lot better about the DVD situation with "Dragnet" if we'd at least gotten Season 2 out, and then if nothing more happened after that I could at least say that the very best of the revival was represented.

Michael J. Hayde said...

Good point about Dragnet 1969, Eric. The Burt Mustin episode you mentioned, along with the Crimson Crusader and the crooked vice cop were probably the most solid of the entire season.

I have problems with much of season 4 - primarily because, at some point in nearly all of them, everything stops dead so somebody can deliver some kind of lecture. And it's not just Friday, either:

There's the father, whose son is back on heroin, who engages in a lengthy monologue about how he missed the telltale signs of addiction while raising his boy. Another father, whose grammar-school child has overdosed on pills, rants and raves about how judges turn pushers loose while his son's fate hangs in the balance. There's the patrolman's wife who lectures her husband's partner's wife about the importance of the job their men have chosen; meanwhile her husband dies in surgery.

Even so, season 4 was a step up from the previous year. And I do wish they'd release them all, or at least consider a "Best of" set from among the remaining seasons.

Anonymous said...

I have had the chance to see Webb on late nite tv, perhaps it was Carson, and I recalled being surprised as he discussed his home, and amazing hi-fi sound system - serious wall to wall speakers and all that. But I never recall him that concerned with listening to the music - probably a certain jazz? - but just the technical - the facts if you will - getting that true audio fidelity.

So it seems with Dragnet, there is a precarious balance between stories relying on plotting between "fact-like" material, and something much more... art-wise, lyrical or just entertaining on any level, whether drama, comedy, satire and so on.

Dragnet rightfully had its day, and like so many tv shows, went past its sell-by date, refused to reflect changes in society, yet went on to reflect technical changes (rejigged for color tv for example).

Its Webbs fault if he winds up a straight-man, ridiculously open for parody and satire, and that his show had a kind of knee-jerk recall due to certain catch-phrases. The scripts and plots might have been a bit more complex, less repetitive...

As for TV land, it isnt their fault as much as the trend of nostalgia-programming that era was falling into, and that always implies some kind of "homage" to the audience, as well as to the series. I mean by that, WE KNOW why we watch Dragnet or not, the commercials arent going to convince us, but to bring us together to laugh with ourselves at how times have changed, and what we know about that program, etc... Thats a good sign, it means people already know, it is a kind of shared memory, and built in audience (the same they do for Andy Griffith or so on).

But sure, I agree, there are times one wishes for more interesting writers on board - but this is tv.

Michael J. Hayde said...

Anon...

We can agree to disagree about the merits of Dragnet and whether or not it truly has passed "its sell-by date." The best of Dragnet still holds up as great entertainment, IMHO; no more dated than Casablanca or I Love Lucy, or any "classic" you wish to name. I don't believe, however, that the worst of Dragnet should be held up as an exemplar of the entire body of work. I'm sure you don't either.

My main beef is that Jack Webb basically invented a specific (and still enormously popular) cop show genre - the police procedural - and is rarely if ever acknowledged as such. Rather, because he also pioneered a style of acting and filmmaking that has fallen out of favor (and I would even debate that conclusion), he is now a subject of mockery.

It's as if historians were to mock and ridicule Edison because his wax cylinders are so pathetically awful-sounding compared to today's digital world. It doesn't work like that. Others have certainly improved on the results over the decades, and these should also be celebrated... but Edison is still the inventor of recorded sound, and deserves to be remembered respectfully as such.

Webb deserves no less for his contribution to television entertainment. There's no CD without the cylinder, and there's no CSI without Dragnet.

ericpaddon said...

I would just add to the defense of "Dragnet" that whether or not one thinks the show is "dated" or whether or not it properly addressed certain changes in society can sometimes depend on what one's present day perspective is on political and social issues.

Because Jack Webb was for the most part a political conservative (though I would certainly make the case the show was quite liberal on an issue like gun control, and skewered the extreme right as much as it did the extreme left), that may in fact partly contribute to some of his diminished reputation in entertainment circles. If that is the case, that would be quite unfortunate.

Anonymous said...

(Great website by the way) Thanks for the discussion point. Ok, no misunderstanding here - I can agree with the idea of pioneering the procedural aspect, and that police shows owe it something in that respect. Perhaps the significance of that one aspect gets lost in the way it seems to remain veritably frozen in time, and thus becomes solely one-dimensional in a young medium that is changing, and so which makes it ripe for caricature. Comedians dont age in the same way.

Just a thought, I think the whole "procedural" and matter-of-fact narrative also worked well in regards to an earlier sense of radio audiences. It had good, clear descriptions that still suggested a noir-like narrative world, except NOT the more dark, exciting, "noir" narrator but a policeman moving in that world, trying to - what else - make sense of it.
Moving to TV, the actors had to DO something, etc.. first issue. What to do with what is essentially a police report unfolding as a dramatic narrative?

And I think no matter what, in the case of Dragnet, it isnt just one era looking back to another with whatever their political-tinted glasses, some it was just really lame on two levels of acting and directing: how youth culture or difference appears (hippies and drugs replacing the communists essentially) and so on, and how they were depicted, always as an aberration to society whose norm is, what else, Webb and co, the police.

enjoy the blog looking forward to more

Sam said...

It's interesting looking back at "Dragnet '67", nowing that police officers don't really act that way now, but deep down it felt like to me that Webb was just trying to honor the men who wear the bagde. Some of it may seem dated and preachy now, but the show still holds up for me. Even the infamous "Blue Boy" episode.

Paul Duca said...

Now it's 2014 and Webb's second wind trilogy of DRAGNET, ADAM-12 and EMERGENCY have become staples of the MeTV network (after previously airing on RetroTV before financial issues led to the cancellation of their contract with Revue/MCA/Universal/NBC/Comcast)

Michael J. Hayde said...

Paul: Yep, and now that it's back MY NAME'S FRIDAY is out of print, although used copies can be had (at sometimes ridiculous prices) at Amazon Marketplace or eBay.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to drop bye and say that I recently got myself a copy of the book and enjoyed it a great deal. I've been a fan of Dragnet ever since I heard the radio version of "The Big No Tooth" somewhere around 2001. I was twelve at the time but could easily recognize that there was something significant about this show. Fast forward to the present and I have all the available radio episodes. I've also seen the available episodes from both TV series.

ericpaddon said...

Well I'm glad that in the eight plus years since I posted to this thread not only is "Dragnet" finished on DVD but so too are "Adam-12" and "Emergency!". It's always great to be able to randomly watch an episode whenever I feel like it in the best versions we're ever going to see (though unfortunately the Dragnet Christmas story, by using an opening title from the original 68 airing and a 69 version closing credit ends up eliminating altogether Richard Breen's credit).

Michael's book has some more bends in the cover but it still is a valuable part of my TV history bookshelf.

bobby J. said...

I think the number one problem is that there really are two Dragnet shows, one is the original '50s one; laconic, tightly-wound, pacey and with some classic segments. Plus the fact that it's brief running time precluded a background home life and viewers could try to discern Friday's inner life.

The '60s show was a mistake, even though it had a successful run and probably some decent elements. And it's the '60s show that is everywhere if one wants to watch Webb's 'Dragnet'.

It's as if every time I wanted to watch 'The Twilight Zone', I couldn't get the original but ended up with the '80s version and not just the '80s version, which had some superb episodes in the first season, but the dire third season.

One day someone will release the original 'Dragnet', it would be lovely to see it on Netflix or bluray.