Episodes: TV's true crime roots


True crime is having a moment. Serial seemed to kick it off for a lot of people, and then Making a Murderer launched everything into high gear. (I'm fascinated by how it seems to have become a cultural phenomenon pretty much because it was on Netflix. But I'll be writing more about it for Vox.) If I were a betting man, I'd say that ESPN's upcoming O.J. documentary and FX's American Crime Story are going to send the nascent movement into hyperdrive. (If American Crime Story doesn't end up the biggest thing FX has ever broadcast, I'll be a bit disappointed, honestly.) Heck, even Discovery is getting in on the trend of serialized true crime, with its new series Killing Fields.

Of course, true crime is as old as television itself. In fact, one of TV's very first cop shows was "pulled from the files" of the LAPD and, thus, ostensibly "true," even if its origins betrayed a certain bias that most true crime today doesn't have. Dragnet, see, was a story about how the cops of this country have your best interests at heart; the genre today is all about how they don't, for the most part, even when they capture the right guy. (FX's O.J. series' most fascinating conundrum is that it presents its characters as right to be suspicious of the LAPD -- just not in this particular instance, where they almost certainly caught their man.)

What's fascinating about this is that Dragnet largely became so on the side of the cops thanks to a simple matter of circumstance. Sure, Jack Webb (the series' creator and star, who first brought it to radio, then brought it to TV) was temperamentally aligned with authority figures already, and the show has a rich, thick conservative streak a mile wide. But Webb's marriage with the LAPD was one of convenience. When he began the show, neither he nor LAPD chief William Parker were quite sure what effect a show about cops would have. As a make-nice gesture, Webb gave Parker veto power over the scripts -- which rapidly turned into greater access to LAPD files and the promise of rock-solid authenticity.

If you've ever seen Dragnet, that promise of authenticity now seems a little silly. The show is probably most famous now for the "blue boy" episode from its 1960s run, which depicts drugs as vile instruments of the devil, more or less, things that will completely break you for life in modern society. It doesn't help that the episode's presentation of drugs is so goofy, for a generation of viewers who mostly knew about these things from alarmist newspaper headlines.

Other episodes of Dragnet seem just as quaint nowadays. It's an OK show, and there's a certain reassuring quality to it (especially in the later series, where Harry Morgan is around). But it's also a show that believes in a rigid moral code and sometimes doesn't realize how inflexible it can be. Dragnet only occasionally has room for the idea that its criminals might be people who believed they were doing the right thing, or for the thought that they're people making the best of a bad situation, or something similar. It reminds me, in some ways, of the old complaint about Orange Is the New Black, where all of the inmates of Litchfield are misunderstood on some level. Can't one of them be a serial killer? Dragnet can feel like the flip side of that.

If there's a reason to recommend the show now, it's in the filmmaking, which is often impressively moody and noir-ish, in the best episodes (particularly of the old black and white show, which rarely took big stylistic chances but could get a lot of mileage out of meat and potatoes filmmaking). The 1967 series did some interesting things with its scoring here and there, and you could also find episodes that told pulpier stories, where the connection to the LAPD case files felt... tenuous at best. Clearly, things were fictionalized at least a bit, but some episodes felt really fictionalized.

And that's, of course, the truth of the matter. Dragnet was always a fiction, no matter how it presented itself. Even true crime documentaries are presenting a version of the facts they want you to get to accept as the truth. Simply stating the facts is sort of boring, so you'll find things like Making a Murderer, which seem to completely hide several things that might be key to influencing how we think about Steven Avery. Serial built itself around these very questions, and people hated that it ended with uncertainty. We want stories to have reasons for being, but it's hard to make real life conform to that format.

What's interesting is that Dragnet's influence hasn't been on true crime, which has split off in an entirely different direction (at least recently) but in fictional cop shows, which almost always take the side of the police (though there are exceptions, of course). Something like Law & Order might have been "ripped from the headlines," but it was always a fantasia on the moment's biggest news, a rough approximation of what current events might look like if they had a writers room.

True crime will always be with us, I think, because it gives us the impression that mysteries might be solved, that some things might have concrete answers. But even in the times when we understand exactly who did something and how they did it, we're often left with a lack of answers about why. True crime promises facts, but the more you dig into it, the more those facts feel hollow. And that, above all else, is why Dragnet today seems just a little silly.

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Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.