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Thank God It's Friday: 7 Reasons to Love Dragnet

Many of today's crime dramas owe a debt to Dragnet and its creator, Jack Webb. This week, let's take a closer look at the man, the legend.

1. It started with a documentary (sort of)

John Rudolph "Jack" Webb became fascinated by the intricate, behind-the-scenes details of police investigations while working on the 1948 film-noir He Walked by Night. The movie was based on a real-life murder case, and Webb was cast as a crime lab technician. The quasi-documentary style of the film gave him an idea for a police drama series with a similar feel. With the cooperation of Chief William H. Parker of the Los Angeles Police Department, he created Dragnet and its protagonist, Sergeant Joe Friday.

2. There was no time to memorize lines

Have you ever wondered why nearly every Dragnet actor recited their dialog in the same clipped, rat-a-tat fashion? As producer of the series, Webb cut costs where he could, and one of those money-saving measures was limited rehearsal time. He preferred to just have his actors read their lines off teleprompters rather than memorizing them. Of course, in scenes where Sgt. Friday is questioning a witness, this robotic delivery of lines made the show more authentic; wouldn't you have a deer-in-the-headlights expression while being interrogated by Joe?

3. Jack Webb turned down Animal House

Jack Webb was the first choice for the role of Dean Wormer in the 1978 film Animal House, but he turned it down because he thought it poked fun at authority. That's not to say that ol' Jack didn't have a sense of humor about himself and the character that he had created. Check out the skit he did with Johnny Carson below.

Johnny Carson - Copper Clappers

4. There were visual punches (without special effects)

Jack Webb didn't need a myriad of special effects to create a gruesome scenario. His matter-of-fact narration and a series of black-and-white photos succinctly paint a picture of what happens during the first second of a head-on auto collision. It still makes the viewer cringe in pain, even in these days of airbags and shoulder restraints. And if this analysis of one fatal second doesn't prompt you to buckle up while behind the wheel, nothing will.

5. The first color version of the show tackled LSD

Dragnet actually had two different runs on television. The color version that is syndicated today is the second incarnation of the series, and it took full advantage of the medium by premiering in 1967 with the deliciously campy "Blue Boy" episode. Modern viewers should keep in mind that LSD was still legal in the early part of 1967, and its effects weren't completely understood. Of course, history has since shown us that acid can make you pretty high and far out. In 1997, TV Guide ranked the "Blue Boy" episode of Dragnet at number 85 on its "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time" list.

6. The strange prevalence of cigarettes

It's interesting to watch Dragnet from a 21st century viewpoint and note the cultural differences between "then and now." Sure, the clothes, the hairstyles, and even the cars are hopelessly dated, but one aspect that truly stands out is the prevalence of smoking. No one ever bothers to ask "mind if I smoke?" before lighting up, and both airports and hospitals came equipped with pedestal ashtrays in their corridors. Jack Webb promoted cigarettes in both TV commercials and print advertisments, first for L&M, and then Chesterfield. Sadly, his three-pack-a-day habit most likely contributed to his fatal heart attack at age 62.

7. America learned what it meant to be a cop

No one ever summarized the pitfalls of the profession as well as Webb:

It's awkward having a policeman around the house. Friends drop in, a man with a badge answers the door, the temperature drops 20 degrees. You throw a party and that badge gets in the way. All of a sudden there isn't a straight man in the crowd. Everybody's a comedian. "Don't drink too much," somebody says, "or the man with a badge'll run you in." Or "How's it going, Dick Tracy? How many jaywalkers did you pinch today?" All at once you've lost your first name. You're a cop, a flatfoot, a bull, a dick, John Law. You're the fuzz, the heat; you're poison, you're trouble, you're bad news. They call you everything, but never a policeman.

A BUNCH OF OTHER FACTS YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY KNOW:

  • Even though it has become a cliché, Sgt. Friday never actually said "Just the Facts, M'am" on an episode of Dragnet.
  • Before video teleprompters became standard, dialog was offered to TV actors using a decidely ancient technique: it was handwritten on paper scrolls.
  • In 1997, TV Guide ranked the "Blue Boy" episode of Dragnet as number 85 on its "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time" list.
  • Friday and Gannon wore the same color suits, shirts and ties in every episode of Dragnet for continuity purposes, per Webb's direction. Establishing camera shots could thus be used from one episode to another.
  • Jack Webb was the first civilian buried with full police honors. Upon his death, his badge number (714) was officially retired by the LAPD.
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    John P. Johnson, HBO
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    entertainment
    10 Wild Facts About Westworld
    John P. Johnson, HBO
    John P. Johnson, HBO

    The hit HBO show about an android farm girl finding sentience in a fake version of the old West set in a sci-fi future is back for a second season. So grab your magnifying glass, study up on Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, and get ready for your brain to turn to scrambled eggs. 

    The first season saw Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her robotic compatriots strive to escape bondage as the puppet playthings of a bored society that kills and brutalizes them every day, then repairs them each night to repeat the process for paying customers. The Maze. The Man in Black. The mysteries lurking in cold storage and cantinas. Wood described the first season as a prequel, which means the show can really get on the dusty trail now. 

    Before you board the train and head back into the park, here are 10 wild facts about the cerebral, sci-fi hit. (Just beware of season one spoilers!)

    1. IT’S NOT THE FIRST TV ADAPTATION OF THE MOVIE.

    Though Westworld, the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, was a hit, its 1976 sequel Futureworld was a flop. Still, the name and concept had enough cachet for CBS to move forward with a television concept in 1980. Beyond Westworld featured Delos head of security John Moore (Jim McMullan) battling against the villainous mad scientist Simon Quaid (James Wainwright), who wants to use the park’s robots to, what else, take over the whole world. It would be a little like if the HBO show focused largely on Luke Hemsworth’s Ashley Stubbs, which just might be the spinoff the world is waiting for.

    2. THE ORIGINAL GUNSLINGER HAS A CAMEO.

    Ed Harris and Eddie Rouse in 'Westworld'
    JOHN P. JOHNSON, HBO

    The HBO series pays homage to the original film in a variety of ways, including echoing elements from the score to create that dread-inducing soundscape. It also tipped its ten-gallon hat to Yul Brynner’s relentless gunslinger from the original film by including him in the storage basement with the rest of the creaky old models.

    3. QUENTIN TARANTINO, ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, AND MANY OTHERS COULD HAVE REBOOTED IT.

    Speaking of Brynner’s steely, murderous resolve: His performance as the robo-cowboy was one of the foundations for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as the Terminator. Nearly 20 years later, in 2002, Schwarzenegger signed on to produce and star in a reboot of the sci-fi film from which he took his early acting cues. Schwarzenegger never took over the role from Brynner because he served as Governor of California instead, and the reboot languished in development hell.

    Warner Bros. tried to get Quentin Tarantino on board, but he passed. They also signed The Cell director Tarsem Singh (whose old West would have been unbelievably lush and colorful, no doubt), but it fell through. A few years later, J.J. Abrams—who had met with Crichton about a reboot back in 1996—pitched eventual co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy on doing it as a television series. HBO bought it, and the violent delights finally made it to our screens.

    4. IT COSTS $40,000 A DAY TO VISIT THE PARK. (AND THAT’S THE CHEAP PACKAGE.)

    Thandie Newton and Angela Sarafyan in 'Westworld'
    HBO

    In season one, Logan (Ben Barnes) revealed that he’s spending $40,000 a day to experience Westworld. That’s in line with the 1973 movie, where park visitors spent $1000 a day, which lands near $38,000 once adjusted for inflation. Then again, we’re talking about 2052 dollars, so it might still be pricey, but not exorbitant in 2018 terms. But a clever Redditor spotted that $40,000 is the minimum you’d pay; according to the show’s website, the Gold Package will set you back $200,000 a day.

    5. BEN BARNES BROKE HIS FOOT AND DIDN’T TELL ANYONE.

    Once Upon a Time’s Eion Bailey was originally cast as Logan but had to quit due to a scheduling conflict, so Ben Barnes stepped in … then he broke his foot. The actor hid the injury for fear he’d lose the job, which is why he added a limp as a character detail. “I’m sort of hobbling along with this kind of cowboy-ish limp, which I then tried to maintain for the next year just so I could pretend it was a character choice,” Barnes said. “But really I had a very purple foot … So walking was the hardest part of shooting this for me.”

    6. THE CO-CREATORS RICKROLLED FANS OBSESSED WITH UNCOVERING SPOILERS.

    Eagle-eyed fans (particularly on Reddit) uncovered just about every major spoiler from the first season early on, which is why Nolan and Joy promised a spoiler video for anyone who wanted to know the entire plot of season two ahead of its premiere. They delivered, but instead of show secrets, the 25-minute video only offered a classy rendition of Rick Astley’s internet-infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up,” sung by Evan Rachel Wood with Angela Sarafyan on piano, followed by 20 minutes of a dog. It was a pitch-perfect response to a fanbase desperate for answers.

    7. IT FEATURES AN ANCIENT GREEK EASTER EGG.

    Amid the alternative rock tunes hammered out on the player piano and hat tips to classic western films, Westworld also referenced something from 5th century BCE Greece. Westworld, which is run by Delos Incorporated, is designed so that guests cannot die. Delos is also the name of the island where ancient Greeks made it illegal for anyone to die (or be born for that matter) on religious grounds. That’s not the only bit of wordplay with Greek either: Sweetwater’s main ruffian, Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), gets his last name from the Greek eschaton, meaning the final event in the divine design of the world. Fitting for a potentially sentient robot helping to bring about humanity’s destruction.

    8. JIMMI SIMPSON FIGURED OUT HIS CHARACTER’S TWIST BECAUSE OF HIS EYEBROWS.

    Evan Rachel Wood and Jimmi Simpson in 'Westworld'
    HBO

    In season one, the show’s many secrets were kept even from the main cast until the time they absolutely needed to know. Jimmi Simpson, who plays timid theme park neophyte William, had a hunch something was funny with his role because of a cosmetic change.

    “I was with an amazing makeup artist, Christian, and he was looking at my face too much,” Simpson told Vanity Fair. “He had me in his chair, and he was just looking at my face, and then he said something about my eyebrows. ‘Would you be cool if we just took a couple hairs out of your eyebrows, made them not quite as arched?’” Guessing that they were making him look more like The Man in Black, Simpson said something to Joy, and she confirmed his hunch. “She looked kind of surprised I’d worked it out,” he said.

    9. THE PLAYER PIANO MAY BE AN ALLUSION TO KURT VONNEGUT.

    One of the show’s most iconic elements is its soundtrack of alternative rock songs from the likes of Radiohead, The Cure, and Soundgarden redone in a jaunty, old West style. In addition to adding a creepy sonic flavor to the sadistic vacation, they also may wink toward Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, which deals with a dystopia of automation where machines do everything for humans, leading to an entrenched class struggle. The show’s resonant elements are clear, but Westworld also mentions that the world outside the theme park is one where there’s no unemployment and humans have little purpose. Like The Man In Black (Ed Harris), the protagonist of Player Piano also longs for real stakes in the struggle of life.

    10. THERE ARE TWO JESSE JAMES CONNECTIONS.

    Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright in 'Westworld'
    HBO

    Anthony Hopkins’s character Dr. Robert Ford is an invention for the new series, and he shares a name with the man who assassinated infamous outlaw Jesse James (a fact you may remember from the aptly named movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The final episode of the first season flips the allusion when Ford is shot in the back of the head, which is exactly how the real-life Ford killed James.

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    Fox
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    Pop Culture
    The ‘Scully Effect’ Is Real: Female X-Files Fans More Likely to Go Into STEM
    Fox
    Fox

    FBI agent Dana Scully is more than just a role model for remaining professional when a colleague won't stop talking about his vast governmental conspiracy theories. The skeptical doctor played by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files helped inspire women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, according to a new report [PDF] from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which we spotted at Fast Company.

    “In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime-time television role,” the report explains. Previously, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the existence of a “Scully effect,” in which the measured TV scientist—with her detailed note-taking, evidence-based approach, and desire to autopsy everything—inspired women to seek out their own science careers. This report provides the hard data.

    The Geena Davis Institute surveyed more than 2000 women in the U.S. above the age of 25, a significant portion of whom were viewers of The X-Files (68 percent) and women who had studied for or were in STEM careers (49 percent). While the survey didn’t ask women whether watching Dana Scully on The X-Files directly influenced their decision to be a scientist, the results hint that seeing a character like her on TV regularly did affect them. Women who watched more of the show were more likely to say they were interested in STEM, more likely to have studied a STEM field in college, and more likely to have worked in a STEM field after college.

    While it’s hard to draw a direct line of causation there—women who are interested in science might just be more inclined to watch a sci-fi show like The X-Files than women who grow up to be historians—viewers also tended to say Scully gave them positive impressions of women in science. More than half of respondents who were familiar with Scully’s character said she increased their confidence in succeeding in a male-dominated profession. More than 60 percent of the respondents said she increased their belief in the importance of STEM. And when asked to describe her, they were most likely to say she was “smart” and “intelligent” before any other adjective.

    STEM fields are still overwhelmingly male, and governments, nonprofits, schools, activists, and some tech companies have been pushing to make the field more diverse by recruiting and retaining more female talent. While the desire to become a doctor or an engineer isn’t the only thing keeping STEM a boy’s club, women also need more role models in the fields whose success and accomplishments they can look up to. Even if some of those role models are fictional.

    Now that The X-Files has returned to Fox, perhaps Dana Scully will have an opportunity to shepherd a whole new generation of women into the sciences.

    [h/t Fast Company]

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