The Good Old Stuff, Jack Webb, and oh, by the way, A Review

I meant to write a review of David Burkhead’s short story “EMT“. But, well, it takes me a bit to actually get to the story.

Jack Webb, unappreciated auteur.
Jack Webb, unappreciated auteur.
Jack Webb is overdue for rediscovery and re-evaluation as an artist.

I’m not being ironic or sarcastic.

The time might be right. A young man I know, when we watched Sunset Blvd. together, was completely clueless when I cheered on seeing Webb’s name in the credits (I had completely forgotten he was in it in the 20-ish years since my last viewing). I said “Dragnet”, and he still hadn’t a notion. And this is a smart, media-savvy guy who likes going down cultural rabbit-holes in his research.

He grew up in the aughts. I grew up in the ’80s. I grew up on reruns of Dragnet and Adam-12 (without, at the time, knowing about Webb’s involvement in the latter). As a wee little brat, Emergency was one of my favorite shows.

But I also grew up knowing that Webb was a cultural punchline. Endlessly parodied in cartoons and comedy recordings.

The thing is, while it is indeed easy to parody Webb’s style, in my re-encounters with his work and career in recent years, I have been astonished at just how accomplished he was.

The joke in Hollywood is that any given “overnight success” story took about ten years to happen. Webb’s path to being a household name was quite a bit shorter, though still not overnight.

He began as an actor on the radio in San Francisco, starring in the detective series Pat Novak, for Hire in 1946.

That show went so well that he moved back to Hollywood and made a very similar one, Johnny Madero, in ’47, then Jeff Regan Private Investigator in ’48.

As he went from show to show, Webb took on more and more responsibilities, not only starring but writing and producing them. As a sideline, he got featured roles in films like He Walked By Night (1948) and Sunset Blvd. (1950), among others.

It was He Walked By Night that led to Webb striking gold. On that film, he played a police technician, and made friends with one of the LAPD advisors on the film. From that contact and friendship, Webb created the show he is known for to this day, Dragnet, which launched on the radio in 1949. Webb created the show, wrote many of the scripts in consultation with the police, and of course starred as Joe Friday. It was a nationwide hit.

Such a hit that he took it to TV in 1951. From 1951, Webb was starring in, producing, often writing, and not infrequently directing Dragnet for both radio and television, a new episode every week in each medium, until 1957, when the radio show ended. (The TV show continued through 1959, then returned from 1967 through 1970.)

Not content to have two shows running simultaneously, in this same time frame Webb wrote for other TV series, created, wrote, and starred in other radio programs (my favorite, and possibly his, was the non-hit Pete Kelly’s Blues). Then, apparently just for the fun of it, he went into movies. Not merely acting, no, he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in nearly one movie a year from 1954 into the early 1960s.

In his spare time he also wrote popular nonfiction books. I am so not kidding.

Yep, I’m a Jack Webb nerd. Guilty as charged. But why am I going on and on about him?

Webb was, himself, a nerd. (I’m not even talking about how I am absolutely sure that Paul Reubens took Pee Wee Herman’s sense of style and physical movements and mannerisms from Webb’s performance in the Pete Kelly’s Blues movie.)

Once he had his hit with Dragnet, his interests and fascinations came into focus and appear in virtually every project in which he was involved thereafter.

If you don’t like Jack Webb, it is easy to dismiss him as a mere propagandist for The Establishment. That dismissal is basically what happened to him, culturally, starting in the late 1960s.

I won’t argue that he wasn’t a propagandist for The Establishment; he was, at least in part. But that’s not what his interest was, it’s a byproduct of his actual concerns.

Jack Webb was fascinated, deeply, deeply fascinated, by what you might call social infrastructure. If you look at everything he had a creative hand in, from 1950 onward, everything he produced was, in one way or another, about how human beings work together, in capacities official and unofficial. How things work smoothly, and why they sometimes don’t. And most of all, taking things that don’t work smoothly, and fixing (or at least addressing) that.

Dragnet? Police detectives and the crimes they worked. Also, believe it or not, it was probably the first TV show to present cops realistically both on and off-duty, even if it strongly emphasized the “on”. It showed Joe Friday and his partners having love lives, his partners being in mortal peril, and bringing issues to 1950s American television that you really wouldn’t expect. There’s an episode of Dragnet about finding a child molester(!).

Pete Kelly’s Blues, in its every incarnation (not just radio, but an excellent 1955 film, and a 1959 TV series — told you it looked like his favorite) explored how society dealt with prohibition, racism, and more in the 1920s.

The D.I. showed basic training for Marines.

-30- looked at the inner workings of the newspaper business and its effect on society.

The Last Time I Saw Archie is an attempt at a light-hearted military homefront comedy, but its central figure (Robert Mitchum) is an army man who can talk his way into or out of almost anything, becoming a human monkey wrench to a not-so-smoothly-running military machine, and never once giving a damn that he fouls things up for most everybody else. (I’m sorry to say that it’s not a very good film, especially given that it’s based on the very real exploits of one Arch Hall, Sr., but I’ll go into him some other time.)

Adam-12 was another look into police work, this time from the uniformed patrol cop’s perspective.

I’ve only just discovered that he created a show in the early ’70s called O’Hara, US Treasury, but just try telling me that title doesn’t fit in with my thesis.

And Emergency! dealt with paramedics and the situations they had to deal with, under intense pressure.

(Another show I just learned about, Sam, dealt with a police-K9 partnership.)

Every single one of these creations is primarily concerned with how the world presented operates, and how it copes when things don’t operate correctly.

Leaving aside questions of the quality of Webb’s work, his interest in How Things Work is old-fashioned.

The fact that it is old-fashioned is not a bad thing.

How Things Work is important. Culturally, we seem to have gotten stuck on stories about How Things Don’t Work and stories about How To Make People Pay. But stories about the healthy functioning of society? Nobody seems interested in presenting that anymore, and hasn’t in a long time. Mocking people who find that interesting has been the default mode of the overculture since the ’80s at least. Witness the awful 1987 film of Dragnet, starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks.

Shorter review: Buy it and read.
Shorter review: Buy it and read.
Well, I have read EMT by David Burkhead, and I’m telling you that his interests, at least based on this story, are very much in line with Jack Webb’s. He’s interested in How Things (Will) Work, and How To Fix Them When Something (Or Someone) Goes Very Wrong.

Furthermore, he expresses that interest in terms of an engaging, dramatic story that pointedly sidesteps the pitfalls of focusing too much on the “mystery” or the villain.

EMT takes place (almost entirely) on the Moon. We follow two characters who you might expect to be very different, but ultimately have the most important things in common.

Schneider is the CEO of a large corporation, who has come to the moon to track down the source of certain discrepancies between what his outfit has been reporting, and what the raw numbers are telling him. There is an accounting shell game going on, and he’s going to do more than stop it.

Kristine is an EMT on the moon, and coping with Things Gone Wrong is her entire job. Which is being made harder and harder by budget and staff cuts, meaning cheaper equipment, longer hours, fewer EMTs on duty, and just about everything else you don’t want for your emergency first responders.

If Burkhead had wanted to spin this out to novel length, he could have dug into the details of the “mystery”, added in more viewpoint characters, and made it all work.

But he’s not interested in the mystery or the villain. He’s interested in Process, in how things work, and how to get them working again after things have gone pear-shaped. There is little mystery in the cause of the problems, and even the details of how Schneider nails down the whole thing are basically in the background. What is important is that Schneider takes a look at the whole operation. He doesn’t just assume “it should work”, as many non-technical people assume these days. He cares about how.

And the story follows that theme.

It’s entirely entertaining, but you need to check some assumptions at the door. Don’t look for a mystery, or an obsession with villainy or human weakness. Don’t look for a shiny new, easy-to-render-with-CGI tech idea that you’ve never seen before.

What you will find, instead of those things, is a thoughtful look at how things can be made to work in a not-too-distant future on a private Moon colony.

I liked that. I liked it a lot. I was sorry there wasn’t more, but what is there is entirely entertaining and worthwhile.

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