I recently finished watching most of the 69 episodes from this series on DVDs. After recovering from the brief psychotic episode they induced I tried to figure out just what the subtext of this series was. I mean, what made it so very popular in the late 60s.
The series must have been dear to Jack Webb's heart. It's too consistent to be anything else. Webb and the show were one and the same. The stories were based on real cases from the LAPD. I understand that. But the presentation was all Webb's. And I thrilled whenever Webb said the words "Los Angeles" and used a "hard" g, as in the original Spanish name for the city.
The design of the program -- the sets, the people we meet -- there was hardly any variation. Every setting seems to be middle class, even the hotel for poor old people. the set design was sparse, the carpets apricot. Sometimes a perp may look weird. He may have painted his face half blue and half yellow if he took LSD, or he may be dressed as Captain Crusader, but everyone else is well groomed and neatly dressed. In Webb's L.A. there is no such thing as a slum or a dangerous neighborhood. All the neighborhoods look alike and Webb, as the narrator, has to tell us we're looking at a run-down house.
It's politically correct, and this has to be part of its appeal. There is the occasional homosexual -- in one episode a hair dresser who gushes that he "could do wonders" with Joe Friday's hair. He isn't ridiculed but the character is played for mild laughs. Blacks are sometimes present but they are always victims of racist comments by bad guys, and Joe Friday straightens the racists out quickly because it's not the American way. And the bad guys who insult them aren't ordinary people but Nazi freaks.
The values embodied in the program are straight down the line -- ordinary middle class, patriotic, law-abiding, respect for elders and authority figures, and thoroughly Republican in the old-fashioned sense of cautious about change and careful about responsibility. Dope is bad, and so is anything else that deviates much from the norm. The anthropologist Ralph Linton drew a distinction between "ideal" culture and "real culture." This program definitely leans towards the ideal, a world in which cops always leap forward to help anyone in distress. (See "Serpico" for a glimpse of the "real".)
Nobody gets away with anything. If you break the law, you pay for it. In a moment the results of that trial.
The format itself gives us a spurious sense of accuracy and attention to the verities. "It was 8:45 PM. It was hot and dry in Los Angeles. We were working the night watch out of Littering." How is it possible to doubt that this is what actually happened?
Acting. Jack Webb is good, and so is Henry (Harry) Morgan, although I wish the latter would make up his mind about his name. Maybe it's Harry (Henry) Morgan, come to think of it. That brief loss of contact with reality seems to have fused a couple of synapses. Anyway, Webb and H. (H.) Morgan had their roles down pat -- from the dramatic to the comic. For the most part, the rest of the acting was robotic. That didn't necessarily detract from the show's value, inasmuch as non-actors don't get in the way of the text. As far as that goes I'm not sure the performers can be blamed. The greatest actors in the world would have a tough time overcoming the stilted scripts. "Hah, Fuzz, you can't say that to me because I'm not under arrest." Webb: "You forgot one thing, mister." "Huh? What's that?" Webb: "Now you are."
I particularly enjoyed the episodes that were built around a dialog between Jack Webb and H. (H.) Morgan, on the one hand, and some rebellious spirit on the other. A Timothy Leary clone appears in one and the repartee is gripping. Leary himself, as I understand it, is now circling the earth in outer space, or at least a portion of his ashes are. The orbit will decay with time as, lamentably, did his attempt to transform the world into a virtual reality without the intervention of machinery. (PS: Kids, Timothy Leary was this ex-Harvard professor who took LSD and advised everyone to "tune in, turn on, and drop out," and -- well, never mind.) Curiously enough, there was a similar talky argument with a producer of pornographic films in another episode. In historical reality, baser human instincts have triumphed over the spiritual, as usual, and the internet is now awash with free videos that belong in an anatomy class, while no one remembers the meaning of the word "psychedelic."
It's enjoyable mostly because it's a trip backward in time. It's a Grandma Moses painting of reality. Webb is telling us what's what. It's like being Twilight Zoned back into a period before the center could not hold and things fell apart. The lines were clear and if you crossed them, well you had Webb and Morgan (H. (H.)) to cope with -- and you didn't win.
By the way, I don't mean to seriously suggest that during the illness I experienced after this marathon viewing, I was a danger to myself or others. The chief symptom was an inability to walk and swing my arms at the same time and an irresistible impulse to wear the same gun-metal gray sports jacket and dark slacks no matter what I was doing. I developed a tendency to nod emphatically too, but my shrink told me to stop it. If any nodding was done around here, he'd do it.
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