Like a Virus
Serial killers on network tv tend to be less sensational than the psychos who show up in movies. It’s difficult to get explicit cannibalism or sexual perversion past censors, and the weekly structure eventually wears out shock value. That said, the premiere episode of the revived Dragnet goes a long way toward achieving film-worthy luridness. It provide grisly shots of dead girls, courtesy of a media-savvy killer reenacting previous crimes, namely, those committed by the Hillside Stranglers back in the ‘70s.
At first glance, this cite-and-repeat strategy looks cagey, a way to make the new series’ first splash both shocking and familiar. Perhaps even more shrewdly, it underlines Dragnet‘s own genealogy, which is all about allusion and reiteration. This well-known police procedural has rather copied itself for years, beginning as a radio drama in 1949, and on through Jack Webb’s infamous tv incarnations, first in 1952 and again in 1967, even surviving the 1987 Dan Aykroyd movie. These incarnations adhered to a limited aesthetic and moral frame: no camerawork or editing, economical sets and locations, orderly detectives, and criminals who were always caught.
This latest version, produced by Dick Wolf—the man behind the Law & Order franchises, not to mention Ice T’s tv career—takes a mostly reverent attitude toward the idea of Dragnet. It retains not only the theme music, but also top cop Joe Friday’s badge number (714) and the sober, perilously moralizing narration: “My name is Friday. I’m a cop. The story you are about to see is inspired by actual events. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” So many years down the LAPD’s infamously rocky road, and this guy still has an unshakable moral code and a clear conscience.
This despite the hubbub over the new show’s ostensibly against-type casting: Friday is now played by Ed O’Neill, whom most viewers remember, fondly or not, as the raucously self-loving Al Bundy. (He was cast after the original choice, Danny Huston, didn’t work out.) But even this isn’t so innovative as it might sound: much of O’Neill’s tv and film work has prepared him for this role: he played detectives in the extremely short-lived though compelling series, Big Apple (2001), as well as in 1999’s The Bone Collector and 1980’s Cruising, as well as guesting on Law & Order, Hunter, The Equalizer, and Miami Vice.
This experience serves O’Neill well. His Friday is cynical and unfussy, weathered but also open-minded enough to look sad when he has to inform a very nice lesbian prostitute that her dead lover’s phobic parents will probably get custody their child. He also brings a few surprises: he quotes Stalin, in Russian, to a snarly lowlife of an emigrant pimp; he knows his Hillside Stranglers history (including details on Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono); and he assuages his much younger partner’s concern that his “reckless” little sister, a raver, might get picked up by the serial killer they’re chasing.
This partner, Detective Frank Smith (played by 24-year-old Ethan Embry, last seen on television, barely, in Freaky Links), is plainly inserted to appeal across age demographics. Friday himself is unconcerned with the Fastlane crowd, making occasional cracks concerning Smith’s youth and makes him lug boxes of evidence. The pair works sensational crimes in the Los Angeles area. According to Dragnet‘s website, storylines will take advantage of L.A.‘s “economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods”—“from diamond thieves and Hollywood movie moguls to street gangs, copycat serial killers, international terrorists and kidnappers.” And, to evoke that all-surveillance, all-the-time state of mind, the series promises fashionable video footage and shots from the “Flying-Cam,” a radio-controlled miniature helicopter.
This new-fangled gimmickry doesn’t do much to dent the series’ old-fashioned sensibility, manifest in the first episode. Friday passes unassailable judgment on “serial killers”—they’re “like viruses… they all ultimately run the same course: kill the host. The host is the city and the toxin is fear.” What he lacks in poetry, Friday makes up for with moral oomph.
Friday and Smith are a decent team: their dialogue is clever, they share a rhythm and a disdain for their reprehensible prey. This first week, they track the “Silver Slayer,” so named because he not only strangles his victims, but also sprays them with silver paint. How dastardly. And how made for tv. Dragnet offers up the kind of sensationalism that sounds worse than it needs to look. The first body appears in the first episode’s first scene, decomposing and half-eaten by coyotes; the coroner cuts the skin of a finger so Smith can slip it over his own, for printing (as Friday says, the kid “does the women”). That is, Dragnet demonstrates the sort of interest in forensics now commonplace on tv, from HBO’s Autopsy and Court TV’s Forensics Files to A&E’s Cold Case Files and, of course, the seemingly self-multiplying C.S.I.s.
Finding one body arranged on a hilltop so that her spread, naked legs frame L.A., Friday is appropriately contemptuous of the killer’s evident desire for and understanding of celebrity. This Friday’s world-weariness is specific to his time and place: Hollywood’s excesses have changed the ways that everyone, even tv cops, think about serial killers. He and Smith are on the same page, too, coming to same conclusions and sharing skeptical glances when hearing out the wholly annoying (and wrong) “former FBI profiler,” brought in by their media-conscious captain, Ruth Hager (Lindsay Crouse) to goose the investigation. (It’s worth noting that the girls tend to be mistaken here, and the boys tend to be right.)
Dragnet‘s best moments belong to Friday and Smith, and have little to do with this investigation. It does lead them through a series of unlikely suspects, which doesn’t undermine their authority or dedication to procedures so much as it displays the wild sprawl of L.A.‘s criminal elements (and this sprawl merits more attention). Once Friday and Smith determine the killer is a copycat, they get to interview a few oddballs, including a woman who corresponds and falls in love with incarcerated murderers (here, Friday’s offhanded threat to the furry little rabbit she cuddles is just about worth watching the entire hour) and a true crime tv fan and collector of serial killer memorabilia (Jon Polito, looking conspicuously and joyously creepy).
Likely, the timing of the series’ resurrection has more to do with Wolf’s schedule (his developing clout via the Law & Orders) than anything else. At the same time, it’s hard not to notice the current surfeit of cop shows—reality-based, interactive, reenacted, investigative, celebratory, forensic—and just how Dragnet fits into it. Retro in tone, it draws from a famous archetype, ratcheting up the glam and graphic aspects just enough so it looks relevant, or at least trendy. While Friday and Smith police the same area and work the same types of crimes as Tom Sizemore’s crew in the late Robbery Homicide Division, the Dragnet guys maintain a self-confidence and faith in the system that most tv cops just don’t anymore. It appears simple and nostalgic, but it also speaks to a newly energized nationalism, where self-named good guys don’t need to explain themselves.