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Dragnet 1968: Season 2 (DVD Review)

12 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Shout! Factory
$44.99 six-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Jack Webb, Harry Morgan.

The first question any legitimate “Dragnet” scholar is likely to ask upon seeing the 1968 designation is easy to guess: Does this set include the twisted classic in which the very young daughter of pot-smoking marrieds drowns in the bathtub because mom and dad were getting stoned?

You bet your pack of Fatimas it is. And it’s another “Big” one. Which is to say that virtually every episode of the original black-and-white “Dragnet” (1951-59) was called “The Big” Something, as in “The Big Hate,” “The Big Quack,” “The Big Drink” and so on. This changed somewhat when NBC and actor/director Jack Webb added color to revive the series in 1967 (following a successful pilot the year before); at this point, the “Bigs” were applied more sporadically. But let no one claim that the pot episode lacked a title unworthy of the content. Aired Nov. 2, 1967, it was immortalized as “The Big High.”

I loved “Dragnet” in its original incarnation, and in elementary school it was probably my favorite TV show next to “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” I loved the staccato pacing and whiplash cutting from one actor to another; the sometimes tabloid black-and-white look, punctuated by close-ups; and the fact that other than an occasional smile, Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday character always looked and acted dyspeptic, as if he never had a date. (In 1956, the writers gave him a girlfriend played by the blond-ishly attractive Marjie Millar and promoted her in newspaper ads — but she only lasted four episodes.) I even liked the comedy relief, which, according to one of the essays included on this boxed set, was calculated to appeal to the young demographic (12-17) Webb shrewdly solicited.

Surprisingly, this same demographic scored disproportionately high during the successful ’60s revival, though I suspect some of this had to do with the show’s camp value during the counter-culture heyday. Webb always employed stiff body movements after putting on some weight in later years, and Friday began to walk as if he were inside a body cast. The jokiness (e.g. the eating habits of Harry Morgan as Friday partner Bill Gannon) began to seem more forced when juxtaposed against more adult subject matter like sex predators, LSD and racial turmoil. And as we saw in the 1954 feature film version of Dragnet, Friday (deep-down) was no friend to Miranda rights — though, of course, that concept didn’t yet exist in those days.

Even so, these episodes do give a hint of where the country was at the time — if in a backdoor way. In “The Grenade,” a teenager more disturbed than his ’50s counterparts pours acid from his at-home chemistry lab onto the jacket of a high-school peer (played by future semi-star Jan Michael Vincent), burning this adversary’s back. But in the series’ slick portrayal (the use of color never helped, either), the perpetrator looks as if he’s just gotten a $200 haircut. In “The Big Problem,” a dissatisfied African-American voices discontent with alleged police brutality against blacks, but in this case, he’s assuaged fairly easily and gets off with a $12.50 fine. Of course, this was long before Rodney King and before James Elroy’s more jaded writings about the LAPD.

Included with this six-disc package is the feature-length 1966 pilot, which features a juicy role for Virginia Gregg, an actress Webb used again and again going back to the ’50s. In it, she operates a notably chaste lonely heart’s club (cake will be served) that’s used as refuge for a still photographer who is murdering his models. In another episode of considerable charm and certainly topicality, Gregg employs an evangelist-like cover to bilk her followers out of money in “The Pyramid Swindle.” Why this wasn’t a big pyramid swindle is something tough to explain.

Webb had a continuing bugaboo about drugs, and in “The Prophet,” Friday and partner Bill Gannon (Morgan) are trying to bust a charlatan who runs something called the “Temple of the Expanded Mind,” which trades in … well, what do you suppose? In “The Big High” — before the child’s drowning — Friday refutes the questions the parents ask, which are the ones a lot of people are asking today. Like, why, on a mere tip from the wife’s father with shaky supporting evidence, are Friday and Gannon wasting police resources to drive a long distance (which Friday notes in the voice-over narration) to bust the married couple for toking in their own home? When the last finally do get busted, it’s not in any orgiastic den of inequity — just a handful of well-dressed people sitting around on a Thursday night. If the baby downed, it must have been due to 25 vodka chasers.

The bonuses include informative essays by a Webb daughter (Stacy) and his official biographers; on screen, the extras include the pilot plus a sit-around with longtime associates. All attest to something that is part of reliable lore: that Webb was immensely loyal, generous and (though he could lose his temper on the set) a good guy. Also interviewed is third wife Jackie Loughery, who divorced Webb (as did her predecessors, who included singer/actress Julie London) because he was married to his work. Now 80 and still striking, the former Miss USA has to be the only actress who was ever leading lady to Jerry Lewis (Pardners) and Webb (The D.I.) in successive years. The D.I., by the way, has reportedly been one of the most successful of Warner’s on-demand titles. Also reportedly, Webb’s indescribable 1950 newspaper opus -30- is in the Warner pipeline.

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