Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Classic Reborn: Dragnet (2003)

Procedural crime dramas such as Law & Order & CSI: Crime Scene Investigation owe their existence to Jack Webb's seminal radio & television series, Dragnet. So it stood to reason, then, that Law producer Dick Wolf, whose studio was affiliated with Universal, which acquired Dragnet in the 60's when Webb revived the series, would take a chance on revisiting his biggest inspiration.

Dragnet returned as a mid-season replacement in the winter of 2003, but instead of airing on NBC, as it had done in two previous network runs, the series shifted to ABC. Not only that, but Wolf tailored his version in the same one hour format as his Law & Order line of shows. The last half-hour version, billed as The New Dragnet and run in syndication for one calendar year (1989-90), was a bust because it was missing a key ingredient---Sgt. Joe Friday, the iconic sleuth created by Webb. The attempt to make the franchise hip was a disaster.

So Wolf had to bring back Friday, but who would play him? To the stunned surprise of fans, character actor Ed O'Neill (ex-Married....With Children), who had some experience playing cops (i.e. "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane"), was given the gig, a chance to once and for all shatter the perception that he'd been typecast as Al Bundy (to this day, my brother refers to O'Neill, currently on another ABC series, Modern Family, as "Al Bundy" out of derision). In this writer's opinion, O'Neill succeeded, but where this version failed was the way ABC treated the show.

Dragnet aired on Sundays initially, but when the fall season began, it was shifted across the calendar to Saturdays, and rechistened L. A. Dragnet for no other reason than to try to boost ratings by making it more of an ensemble drama, which it was never meant to be. Ethan Embry was cast as Frank Smith, a role created by Ben Alexander on radio & TV in the 50's, but written out of the 1967 series (due to Alexander's commitment to ABC's Felony Squad). For season 2, historians will note it was the first series gig for Eva Longoria, better known now for her run on Desperate Housewives. ABC essentially had given up, and cancelled Dragnet 6 episodes into the 2003-4 season. USA picked up the show, but didn't go very far with it, either.

It should be worth noting that Universal has had a poor track record of reviving classic properties in recent years, as evidenced by the failures of revivals of Night Stalker, Kojak, Knight Rider, Bionic Woman, and an ill-advised reboot of The Munsters. What, then, would make them think that rebooting Ironside this fall won't be any different? Someone should hand the suits at NBC-Universal-Comcast a book of Santayana's writings.

Now, let's scope the open to the 2003 Dragnet, with Mike Post revamping the classic theme.

Unlike its forebears, this version ain't out on DVD yet, and they're in no hurry to do so. Their loss.

Rating: A.


magicdog said...

I never saw this version of Dragnet (I did see the syndicated version from '89) but naming a character Joe Friday wasn't what the show would have needed. Jack Webb is too ingrained in the national populace to be portrayed by anyone else. If anything - they should have had a picture of him in the office and some detectives talking about his exploits and as a model for a generation of LAPD officers. Perhaps even a "funeral" for him, as a long retired but dedicated cop he was. I have heard his 714 numbered badge was actually retired by LAPD.

For the last version of the show, were these stories based on actual LAPD cases, or pure fiction from the Hollywood writers?

hobbyfan said...

I would imagine it might've been a mix of both, but with Dick Wolf involved, it might've been that he padded out the franchise by opting for the 1 hour format.

I barely saw "New Dragnet", if at all, but I will have something up on that soon.