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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.
Scripts tackled a number of topics, ranging from the thrilling (murders, missing persons and armed robbery) to the mundane (check fraud and shoplifting), yet “Dragnet” made them all interesting due to fast-moving plots and behind-the-scenes realism. In “The Garbage Chute” (December 15, 1949), they even had a locked room mystery.
Though rather tame by modern standards, Dragnet—especially on the radio—handled controversial subjects such as sex crimes and drug addiction with unprecedented and even startling realism. In one such example, Dragnet broke one of the unspoken (and still rarely broached) taboos of popular entertainment in the episode “.22 Rifle for Christmas” which aired December 22, 1949 and was repeated at Christmastime for the next three years. The episode followed the search for two young boys, Stanley Johnstone and Stevie Morheim, only to discover Stevie had been accidentally killed while playing with a rifle that belonged to Stanley—who’d be receiving it as a Christmas present but opened the box early; Stanley finally told Friday that Stevie was running while holding the rifle when he tripped and fell, causing the gun to discharge, fatally wounding Morheim. NBC received thousands of complaint letters, including a formal protest by the National Rifle Association. Webb forwarded many of the letters to police chief Parker who promised “ten more shows illustrating the folly of giving rifles to children”. (Dunning, 211)
Another episode dealt with high school girls who, rather than finding Hollywood stardom, fall in with fraudulent talent scouts and end up in pornography and prostitution. Both this episode and “.22 Rifle for Christmas” were adapted for television, with very few script changes, when Dragnet moved to that medium. Another episode, “The Big Trio” (July 3, 1952), detailed three cases in one episode, including reckless and dangerous (in this case, fatal) driving by unlicensed juveniles. With regard to drugs, Webb’s strident anti-drug statements, continued into the TV run, would be derided as camp by later audiences; yet his character also showed genuine concern and sympathy for addicts as victims, especially in the case of juveniles.
The tone was usually serious, but there were moments of comic relief: Romero was something of a hypochondriac and often seemed henpecked; Frank Smith continually complained about his brother-in-law Armand; though Friday dated, he usually dodged women who tried to set him up with marriage-minded dates.
Due in part to Webb’s fondness for radio drama, Dragnet persisted on radio until 1957 (the last two seasons were repeats) as one of the last old time radio shows to give way to television’s increasing popularity. In fact, the TV show would prove to be effectively a visual version of the radio show, as the style was virtually the same [including the scripts, as the majority of them were adapted from radio]. The TV show could be listened to without watching it, with no loss of understanding of the storyline.