Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Classic TV Holiday Special: Dragnet (1951)

Dragnet (1951 series)
Debut: December 16, 1961
Created by Jack Webb
Starring: Jack Webb, Ben Alexander
Synopsis: Sgt. Joe Friday and his partners follow procedure as they investigate crimes in Los Angeles.

Trey: With the holiday season upon us, it seemed like a good time to dive into the Classic TV tradition of the "Christmas episode." What better place than the venerable, multi-media police procedural franchise, Dragnet. Dragnet got its start on radio in 1949 but moved to TV in 1951. That series ran until 1959. It was revived in new, color series in 1967 and ran until 1971. Films and new series have shown up into the 21st Century.

We watched the episode "The Big Little Jesus" which aired on December 24, 1953. Father Rojas at the Old Mission Plaza Church discovers that the statue of the baby Jesus has been stolen from the Nativity display. The statue isn't worth a lot, but it's of great sentimental value to the parish. Friday and Smith promise to try to get it back before Christmas Day mass--but that means they've got less than 24 hours to do it.

This same story had aired just two days before on the radio show. It would also be remade (as "The Christmas Story"), virtually unchanged, for the 1967 series, airing on December 21, 1967. 

Jason: I vaguely remember watching a few episodes of the 1967 series in syndication in the mid-80s, particularly the infamous LSD episode, as a piece of kitsch illustrating square culture's inability to grasp what the groovy kids were up to. But it had style! The 1953 episode we watched, created at the height of its cultural moment, feels right at home with itself and resists a solely ironic viewing. It is also quite stylish! 

That said, the opening scene jolts the viewer into a bygone culture, as ultra-square bachelor Joe Friday dutifully fills out an impressive stack of Christmas cards. His partner Frank recommends marriage as the pragmatic solution to this burden - his wife takes care of all such matters. Joe muses, seemingly crunching the numbers for a moment, when they are interrupted by news of theft of a statue of the baby Jesus. For the time being, Joe remains all cop.

Their exchange, a machine gun barrage of snappy dialogue presented in quick cuts from close up to close up, demands the viewer's full and complete attention and sets the tone for the rest of the episode. Information is delivered verbally, due at least in part, I'm sure, to Webb's use of the nearly unaltered script for the radio version of Dragnet, as well as time and budgetary limitations. The dialogue comes at breakneck speed, as if fueled by black coffee and an ashtray full of Chesterfields.

One of my favorite moments was when the priest apologized to Joe and Frank for monopolizing their time during the holidays. 

I found this episode fascinating, as a window into the increasingly foreign past and as another example of the hyper-condensed storytelling of its era. 

Trey: I too had seen snippets of the '60s version and I'd seen the 1987 spoof film. Joe Friday doesn't seem quite as square and certainly not as priggish as he would in in the 60s. The 50s is the world he was meant for, though still it's obvious he's a straight-arrow, by-the-book sort.

It's interesting what it says about the view of faith in this era. AVClub did a comparison between this version and the 60s remake that's interesting. All and all, I found my heart suitably warmed with this one. Jason, what about you?

Jason: Most definitely. If Joe Friday can get a little sentimental, there's something there for all of us!

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Cliffhangers (1979)

Debut: February 27, 1979
Created by Kenneth Johnson
Starring: Susan Anton, Ray Ralston, Michael Swan, Geoffrey Scott, Carlene Watkins, Tiger Willaims, Michael Nouri, Carol Baxter, Stephen Johnson
Synopsis: Three serialized tales of adventure are presented each week: the mystery/adventure of Stop Susan Williams, the Weird Western of The Secret Empire, and the horror of The Curse of Dracula.

Trey: Cliffhangers is an unusual NBC series that aired from February to September 1979. In each installment, you got a chapter of 3 serialized stories, resembling the matinee serials of the past. One of them, The Secret Empire, was based on the old Gene Autry serial, The Phantom Empire, in fact.

On paper, this idea had a lot going for it. You were essentially running three 3 series in one hour, so if one failed to find an audience, it could be switched out for something else. However, running 3 productions meant the cost of 3 productions. It was an expensive show. It also aired opposite the powerhouses of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Plus, at the end of the day, it really just isn't that good.

Jason: Well, it was an experience! Nostalgia for the entertainments of yesteryear, in this case the action-oriented serials of the 30's and 40's (and televised for Baby Boomer audiences in the 50's and 60's, was in the air in the 1970's. The Star Wars phenomena that preceded this show and Indiana Jones following a year or so after Cliffhangers bit the dust are both obvious examples of successfully updating serial tropes. 

Conceptually more interesting than entertaining, Cliffhangers was a challenging watch, at least in part due to the dreadful scan available on YouTube, which would have looked much better on a smaller screen that I used. I managed to suppress the urge to change the channel (which, if this show was on in my childhood home, likely occurred), and dutifully stayed the course, buoyed by the hope that the next segment would be better.

Trey: You're right about than YouTube upload. It was like watching through gauze, but perhaps that made the experience more authentic given the vagaries of TV and reception back in the day? Are there positives here we could accentuate?

Jason: Mercifully, it actually did seem to get better from segment to segment. 

The Perils of Pauline-inspired Stop Susan Williams ticked off the genre boxes but felt dreary to me. The only real updating I detected was in Susan Anton's wardrobe. 

The Secret Empire gave us an elevator from the Old West to an alien underground city, which is always welcome. The city itself appeared to have been shot in an abandoned shopping mall. It was difficult to tell if anything interesting would follow in subsequent episodes that Gene Autry hadn't already dealt with in the 30's incarnation. 

Trey: There is precedent for Modern public buildings as futuristic cities. See Logan's Run. In any case, the few episodes I saw of this as a kid (I don't recall how many or if I sat through an hour. I didn't remember Susan Williams at all.) it was The Secret Empire I was most interested in. I had seen some of Phantom Empire on PBS as a kid. Like with Phantom Empire, I was not of an age where it's parsimony with the sci-fi allowed it to hold my interest.

Jason: Of the three stories we watched partially unfold in this episode, my favorite was the disco-age adventures of professional academic Dracula. If only we could have been treated to Dracula's lecture in its entirety instead of pesky Van Helsing intrigue already-in-progress! I'll sign up for Dracula's TED talk any day. 

Trey: Yeah, while not great, that segment works the best here. It eventually got edited into a TV movie. Circling back to the Secret Empire, one more thing I noticed there: the hero breaks out a bullwhip for one scene. You would swear it was a ripoff of Indiana Jones except of course this show predates Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Jason: It's perhaps a shame it wasn't riding those coattails. It might have given them pointers on updating the material for the modern audience.


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