With its cold voiceover opening and just-the-facts-ma’am narrative style, NBC’s ”Law & Order” has always seemed like a direct descendant of Dragnet. So it’s fitting that ”L&O” overlord Dick Wolf is executive-producing the ABC remake of Jack Webb’s seminal cop show. In many ways, it stays true to the original 1951-59 TV series — the lead characters’ names, LAPD detectives Joe Friday (”Married… With Children”’s Ed O’Neill) and Frank Smith (”Sweet Home Alabama”’s Ethan Embry), haven’t been changed, for example — but from the updated version of the show’s immortal theme song to its amped-up, titillating plotlines, the new ”Dragnet” moves to a faster beat.
Firing off Friday’s lines in a machine-gun monotone, creator Webb sometimes came across as semicomatose; this guy put the ”dead” in ”deadpan.” To his credit, O’Neill doesn’t attempt to imitate Webb, like Dan Aykroyd did in the underrated 1987 big-screen spoof; instead, he captures Friday’s low-key spirit, and his admirably restrained performance feels like penance for his many years of mugging as ”Married”’s vulgarian dad, Al Bundy.
Occasionally, O’Neill’s Friday loses his cool — Webb never would’ve barked at a perp, ”You talk, or you’ll never talk again!” — but that merely reinforces the actor’s believability as a modern-day cop. This should come as no surprise to anybody who saw O’Neill step convincingly into Gene Hackman’s ”French Connection” shoes in the pre-”Married” TV movie ”Popeye Doyle,” not to mention his juicy work as an NYPD detective in CBS’ 2001 crime drama ”Big Apple.” These gigs must’ve convinced Wolf that O’Neill was the right choice to take over for Danny Huston, who played Friday in the remake’s scrapped pilot.
Maybe Wolf should’ve also replaced Embry, who doesn’t make such a credible cop. Sporting grown-up sideburns, he still seems like the pubescent twerp of ”Can’t Hardly Wait” and ”That Thing You Do!” The writers try to address his youth by having Friday confess, ”How you ever became a detective this young is still a mystery to me.” But that doesn’t resolve the mystery: How did he ever become a detective this young? With no explanation, his scenes play like ”Doogie Howser, LAPD.”
The real answer, of course, lies in demographics. Embry ain’t exactly Harry Morgan, who played Friday’s grandfatherly partner Bill Gannon in the series’ late-’60s revival, and ABC’s clearly hoping the baby-faced thesp will attract viewers who weren’t alive to watch the previous TV incarnations. But as a result, Friday seems less like Smith’s partner than his mentor. At least the actors share an easy on-screen camaraderie, perhaps stretching back to their costarring roles in John Hughes’ 1991 road-trip comedy ”Dutch.”
The original ”Dragnet” didn’t shy away from depicting the often-humdrum nature of police detectives’ jobs, but paperwork and petty thefts won’t cut it anymore in the supercompetitive world of prime-time television. So Friday and Smith tackle more sensational cases, like a serial killer who leaves traces of silver paint inside his victims. Following the blood trail of the ”CSI” franchise, ”Dragnet” doesn’t spare viewers any of the gory details, including a close-up of a forensics expert snipping off a corpse’s fingertip in order to obtain a print. The dialogue can get equally graphic. When semen is detected outside a female victim’s genitalia, Smith blurts out, ”Premature ejaculation — we got a squirter!” That line alone would’ve given Webb a heart attack (if he hadn’t already suffered a fatal one in 1982).
”Dragnet” is comparatively discreet when dealing with the cops’ personal lives, à la L&O. Friday apparently doesn’t have one (in keeping with the series’ tradition), while Smith mentions only a sister. Their captain (Lindsay Crouse, well prepped for the show’s staccato rhythms from her days as David Mamet’s wife and muse) admits to having been married for 27 years, not that we’re likely ever to see her husband.
The drama provides more vivid roles for its guest stars. Ex-”L.A. Law” and current ”Celebrity Mole” man Corbin Bernsen gamely engages in self-parody as a Hollywood has-been mixed up with Armenian gangsters, while ”Homicide: Life on the Street” casualty Jon Polito camps it up as an exhibitionistic collector of serial-killer memorabilia. Suspected of sexual assault, he pleads not guilty by reason of impotence, eagerly dropping trou to show off his scar from a prostate operation.
Even as Wolf’s staff of scribes revamp ”Dragnet” for the age of DNA and PDAs, its primary virtue remains refreshingly old-fashioned: solid, well-crafted plots. Friday’s investigations stand as expertly constructed examples of classic A-leads-to-B-leads-to-C storytelling. Unlike such new-wave crime dramas as NBC’s ”Boomtown” and FX’s ”The Shield,” ”Dragnet” doesn’t reinvent the TV-cop wheel, but it does offer a satisfying hour of throwback entertainment. Its lack of a gimmick may be enough of a twist to set it apart from the rest of the cop-show pack.