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Cathy's World: Dragnet returns

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   Feb. 5, 2003 at 1:21 PM
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- I don't know why I keep track of these things, but I'll bet Sunday night's premiere of ABC's new "Dragnet" series set a record for the number of times the word "semen" has been uttered on network television.

I asked Executive Producer Dick Wolf about this, and -- this is what I like about him, actually -- as usual he tried to make me feel like an idiot.

That's what he always does when any reporter asks a question that's less than completely admiring, and by now he's got his world-weary, you-don't-know-shit response burnished to a fine sheen.

"Gee, I guess you've never seen 'Special Victims Unit,'" Wolf responded at the ABC news conference, referring to one his many "Law & Order" spinoffs. "I was not aware of the number of mentions of semen, but it didn't leap out at anybody else."

As it turns out, it did. Because another reporter, emboldened by my elevating introduction of bodily fluids into the conversation, immediately followed up with a question about "the ick factor" in this new "Dragnet."

Which, for the record, included this bit of dialogue by Sgt. Joe Friday (now played by Ed O'Neill of "Married, With Children" fame) in the pilot, as he observed a decomposed Jane Doe: "Semen on the OUTSIDE of the vagina and anus and not on the INSIDE?"

Geez, I hate it when that happens. Not to mention that maggots had been feeding on Jane's decomposed body for 55 hours, and then she got one of her dead fingers clipped off with a shears for evidence.

But that's entertainment these days, police procedural-style. And I suppose an argument can be made that at least a pro-cop show like "Dragnet" is more wholesome than its competition Sunday night, NBC's "Sopranos" ripoff "Kingpin," which portrays the world of drug dealers as a glamorous soap opera.

"The audience is never wrong," Wolf is fond of saying. "I think the wonderful thing about the American public is they'll make a very clear choice whether they want to watch the most iconic cop in the history of television, or a warm family drama about drug dealers killing your children."

"Look, it's not gratuitous," Wolf said, responding to this new "Dragnet"'s ramped-up gore factor. "We're not showing anybody's bare ass," -- no, that would be "John Doe," on Fox -- "but there is a certain amount of forensic pathology that we're accurate about, the same way 'Law & Order' does and the same way that 'C.S.I.' does."

"I wouldn't make 'The Shield,'" he added, referring to the FX cable channel's critically acclaimed but rather nihilistic drama about corrupt cops in Los Angeles's notorious Rampart district.

"It's not an area I'm willing to explore," Wolf continued. "Look, the reality is that 99 percent of all cops are exactly the cops that you would hope they would be. They're not doing it for the money. They're doing it because they want to help people. And the bulk of them are really nice guys."

Still, if you were channel-surfing Sunday night and idly flipped onto "Dragnet," you indeed might have wondered if you'd happened onto a particularly gruesome "C.S.I." or "Special Victims Unit" episode rather than a revival of the corny old Jack Webb series.

Sunday's "Dragnet" debut crackled with the snap of the rubber glove, the swipe of the anal swab. The plot imagines a series of grisly murders inspired by the old Hillside Strangler case. But the Silver Slayer, as the new copycat killer is dubbed, paints his victims silver. And, as Friday quickly figures out, what with all the semen swabbing, he's a premature ejaculator.

This leads to a memorable encounter with one suspect, who's a pervert and proud of it, but -- as he gleefully points out to Friday and his young partner (Ethan Embry) -- he can't be the killer because he's got no prostate. Neat alibi!

There have been complaints that Wolf's new "Dragnet" strays so far from Jack Webb's old "Dragnet" that you wonder why he even bothered to kept the name, other than an opportunistic grab for brand recognition. Why not call it something like "Law & Order: Just the Anal Swab, Ma'am" instead?

I felt a number of echoes from the old series, though. Most viewers today remember "Dragnet" from its late '60s version, which, as Wolf pointed out, had become even then something of a joke. The famous clip of Jack Webb insisting that "marijuana is the match, cocaine is the fuse and heroin is the bomb" -- which TV Land sometimes runs as kitsch nostalgia -- is from Webb's goofy, hippie-baiting period.

But "Dragnet" originally began in 1949 as a radio drama, then moved to TV in 1952, and these earlier incarnations were very different. For those who assume square old Jack Webb would be shocked by the groovily gruesome forensic shows on the air today, consider this:

"It was nude. It showed evidence of slow, deliberate torture. There were neat, deep slashes around the breasts and on them. Rope burns on the wrists and ankles indicated the victim had been spread-eagled to heighten her agony. Her mouth had been deeply gashed from ear to ear so that her face was fixed in a grotesque and leering death smile. Finally, the body had been cleanly, surgically cut in two at the waist..."

That sounds like something from a script of "C.S.I." or "Special Victims Unit." But actually, it's Jack Webb writing about the Black Dahlia murder case in his 1958 book "The Badge." So quit your snickering about how much more sophisticated we are now when it comes to violence.

And I don't think anyone's ever introduced the Black Dahlia, by the way, better than Webb: "She was a lazy girl and irresponsible, and, when she chose to work, she drifted obscurely from one menial job to another, in New England, south to Florida, westward to the Coast..."

"Dragnet"'s old-fashioned anthology format allows several enjoyably hammy moments from character actor guest stars each episode, just like in the old series. From a supporting player's point of view, this may make up for the fact that Wolf dramas don't offer in the much of star turns.

"Procedurals mean you don't have those wonderful -- as Jerry (Orbach, of "Law & Order") puts it, 'Why can't somebody die in my arms so I can get nominated for an Emmy?' scenes?" Wolf noted.

Then there's the Silver Slayer, who turns out to be an effeminate department store pianist. Friday places him under arrest for murder. And also "for murdering Chopin."

Shades of Jack Webb chasing after long-haired hippies in the square old late '60s version of "Dragnet!" And I have a feeling that Jack Webb's inscrutable Joe Friday would have had strong feelings about Chopin, too.

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