I have to admit, Jennifer and I are fans of police procedurals, radio and teevee shows which “show” how cops and prosecutors “do things.” Stuff doesn’t really work this way, these shows are fantasies full of over-competent cops, shiny technology in which mistakes are rarely made and always fessed up to. The guilty always confess, and those who confess are always guilty.
They make for neat little morality tales. I admit — it would be nice if the world really worked the way it does is Dragnet or Law & Order. But it doesn’t. The world is probably more like DaVinci’s Inquest, the first season of which was absolutely incredible. Jennifer and I just enjoy the entertainment.
The police procedural began with the Dragnet radio show in the very late 1940s. After playing a string of overly hard boiled private detectives, Jack Webb hit his stride as LAPD “Detective Sergeant” Joe Friday. The original radio show had an interesting edge: Friday had a home life (he lived with his mom, showed an interest in girls), but that and the early 1950s teevee show (Joe actually had a girlfriend, her name was, I think, Ann) were done in the era before the Miranda Warning. (Quick quiz: how many of you know the Miranda Warning by heart because you watched the late 1960s Dragnet or Adam-12?) Friday and his partner could, and often did, enhance their interrogation techniques. One radio episode had Friday and his partner frog-march a suspect (played by Harry Morgan, Webb’s future teevee partner) around downtown Los Angeles in 100-degree heat for four days looking for an apartment, for example. The bad guys are bad, the good guys follow the rules, and everything works out for justice in the end. Again, nice fantasy.
Law & Order is just Dragnet with lawyers attached on the back end. Jennifer and I watch for the characters, mainly, though the various L&O franchises (SVU is Dragnet: Sex Police, a role I could never see Joe Friday doing, and CI is Dragnet+Columbo, which again is a role I could never see Webb filling on his own) help assure both of us that the world is a rotten place full of rotten people who do rotten things. And there’s the morality tale. I claim not to like happy endings, but I’m sort-of lying when I say that. But only sort-of.
While the shows are very much the same, there’s an intriguing difference. Joe Friday has to carry around a pocketful of dimes for pay phones, and he frequently asks to use someone’s phone to call his office. (In the radio show, several minutes of one episode are taken up when Friday calls “long distance” from LA to somewhere in Idaho, as operators connect to exchanges and hook the call up.) There are times, when he’s not in the car at his radio, or not near a payphone, when Joe Friday is incommunicado. All of the L&O cops have cell phones, and can always be reached (unless the writers contrive a situation to put them out of reach). Calling Idaho is no problem.
It’s interesting, this change in telephone affairs, and is more noticeable than any other difference in the two shows.