21st Precinct and Dragnet, East and West Coast Cop Shows

The phenomenal success of Dragnet, premiering in 1949, was bound to have imitators. One of the Columbia network’s answers was 21st Precinct.

Comparisons between the two police procedural dramas are interesting. Both shows emphasize the human reality of police work. The sound effects are an important part of both shows, especially the background noise and chatter in the police station and the sounds of automobiles, and police jargon peppers the dialog.

The differences between the two programs are compelling. 21St Precinct takes place in Manhattan, where as Dragnet is very much a part of the 50’s west coast scene of Los Angeles. Twenty First Precinct is seen through the eyes of the precinct captain, and so gives us an overview of the entire precinct’s business. While a single case is the focus of each episode, we also hear the captain’s distractions as different cases and police business are thrown in.

Dragnet focuses on the work of a single police detective sergeant and his partner. The partners serve in the various divisions of the department, thereby giving us a glimpse of many different facets of police work. We also are allowed brief looks into the personal lives of Sgt.s Friday and Romero, which are not part of the plot, but help to make the characters more real.

Although Dragnet makes more use of dramatic devices, the very recognizable theme music and “the names have been changed” disclaimer, Jack Webb managed to create a much more realistic feeling program. This is due to the gritty feel of the program, and Webb’s portrayal of Friday as a “cops cop”, tough but not hard, conservative but fair and understanding.

21st Precinct lacks the “grab the audience by the throat” quality of Dragnet , but the stories, based on real events, are very well written and performed. In addition to being great police drama, 21st Precinct also gives us a good aural picture of Manhattan in the 50s.

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