Dum-De-Dum-Dum Revisited

By Richard C. Neuweiler (from The New York Times, January 8th, 1967)
In the course of years of shameless television viewing, I have indulged myself in a variety of fantasies about the medium, some of which probably indicate that my grip on reality isn’t what it should be. (However, I still think it will be-some time before I show up in the Tournament of Roses Parade.) The unfortunate thing about these fantasies is that they are almost always based on some commercial or program series and when cancellation time comes (as it must to all that lives on television my carefully nurtured dreams are canceled along with them.

For example, there used to be a. public service commercial for Radio Free Europe that prompted one of my more enduring obsessions. For years I sat around hoping that sonic night-just once- the announcer would finish by saying: “…and remember: Your dollar can buy one minute of truth-and fifty-nine minutes of lies!”

Then there were the seasons with “Naked City.” A lot of those evenings were spent wondering about the possibility of their announcer, closing out the program with: “There are over ten millions stories in this city – and some day we might even tell one of them.”

Naturally, none of these things ever came to pass. But the point is that they might have – and that was enough. As the saying goes, hope is the mother of folly (or whatever.) Anyway, the subsequent removal from the airwaves of these items, and any other TV fare that helped keep my fantasy life relatively wholesome, has long been a source of growing personal concern. Until last fall, that is. Because that’s when things started looking up.

Back in the famous “Golden Age of Television”- that was the one right after the Iron Age and just before. our current Stone Age – few programs rivaled the popularity of “Dragnet.” A weekly half-hour drama about law and order in Los Angeles, “Dragnet” always opened with a weighty statement from the producers guaranteeing the story’s authenticity. And it was this statement – repeated week after week –that eventually. triggered my first TV-inspired experience in wishful thinking. On that occasion, in fact, I actually thought for a moment that I had really heard the announcer say: “The story you are about to see is true. Only the facts have been changed to protect the innocent.”

I was wrong, of course, but the possibilities were so fascinating that it didn’t seem to matter. There would be another episode the next week, and maybe then…. And so it went. Only after the last program did I begin to see the apparent futility of the whole thing Not that it made any difference “After all,” I told myself, what are a few nagging doubts next to a great vision! It could still happen. ‘Dragnet’ might be back on television some day.”

To which another inner voice added: “Yes. And some day Chiang might return to the mainland.”

Well, I don’t know what Chiang Kai-shek’s plans are at the moment, but if you happen to tune in NBC this Thursday night at 9:30 be reassured: That isn’t a deja vu, that’s the return of “Dragnet.”

Yes, America, that hero of routine law enforcement (“My name’s Friday. I’m a cop.”) and champion of terse dialogue (“Just give us the facts, Ma’m”) is back. And, in an increasingly uncertain world, it’s nice to be able to report that some vectors still remain constant. Jack Webb, for instance. He’s returning with “Dragnet” as both its star and producer, just as in the old days. And once again, the series will be based on the files of the Los Angeles Police Department.

And realism. There’s going to be lots of that again, too. At least that’s what one network release said and they should know because if there’s anything television networks are big on, it’s realism. Not reality, just realism.

“Dragnet” in fact was one of the pioneers in the field of TV realism. Today any dramatic show that wants to create a “documentary” atmosphere will often employ. one or more of the techniques that were initially identified in the public mind with the ”Dragnet” series.
Realism” on “Dragnet” was dum-de-dum-dum, a dramatic musical overture coupled with a style that meant underplay, understate and frequently underlight. Any character uttering a sentence containing more than one idea usually turned out to be a mental case.

There will, of course, be some differences between this latter-day “Dragnet” and its forerunner. For one thing, Friday’s been busted. That’s right, he’s back to sergeant again. We only mention this in case you may have forgotten about his promotion to lieutenant just as the old series was drawing to a close. (A faulty memory would be your only possible excuse. In this trivia-oriented age, it’s inconceivable that anyone just wouldn’t care about a thing like that.)

Webb thinks that making Friday a lieutenant was a mistake, so he’s demoted him back to sergeant. He’s also had to provide him with a new sidekick. Ben Alexander, Friday’s old alter ego, is pulling duty on another series – and Harry Morgan has been picked as his replacement.

And obviously there will also be other changes wrought more by time and circumstance than by design. For example as I recall, Friday used to he pretty impressive during pre-trial cross-examinations of suspects. Last year’s Supreme Court ruling on that subject however, would seem to have just about eliminated those scenes.

But the important question is: What will happen if “Dragnet’s” return proves a success? What then about all those other hit shows from that era? Could it mean that “Big Town,” “Medic,” and “Howdy Doody” will soon be with us again?

Ah, it beggars the imagination.

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