Only the Names Have Been Changed
Dragnet, the Police Procedural, and Postwar Culture
216 Pages, 23 b&w photos
Sales Date: October 18, 2022
2023 Peter C. Rollins Book Award, Northeast Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Associations (NEPCA)
In the postwar era, the police procedural series Dragnet informed Americans on the workings of the criminal justice system and instructed them in their responsibilities as citizens.
Among shifting politics, tastes, and technology in television history, one genre has been remarkably persistent: the cop show. Claudia Calhoun returns to Dragnet, the pioneering police procedural and an early transmedia franchise, appearing on radio in 1949, on TV and in film in the 1950s, and in later revivals. More than a popular entertainment, Dragnet was a signifier of America’s postwar confidence in government institutions—and a publicity vehicle for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Only the Names Have Been Changed shows how Dragnet’s “realistic” storytelling resonated across postwar culture. Calhoun traces Dragnet’s “semi-documentary” predecessors, and shows how Jack Webb, Dragnet’s creator, worked directly with the LAPD as he produced a series that would likewise inspire public trust by presenting day-to-day procedural justice, rather than shootouts and wild capers. Yet this realism also set aside the seething racial tensions of Los Angeles as it was. Dragnet emerges as a foundational text, one that taught audiences to see police as everyday heroes not only on TV but also in daily life, a lesson that has come under scrutiny as Americans increasingly seek to redefine the relationship between policing and public safety.
Only the Names Have Been Changed is an outstanding book showing the connection between the aesthetics of policing from midcentury media and the strategies we see today. Claudia Calhoun achieves this story brilliantly through the prism of Dragnet, its origins, and contexts, in doing so making a vital contribution to the history of radio and of popular culture more broadly. This book is an essential source for historicizing the pressing need for police transformation.
— Neil Verma, author of Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio DramaDragnet is one of the most important and influential US media texts of the twentieth century, but it has not gotten the critical attention it deserves—until now. Only the Names Have Been Changed provides an essential take on this seminal series, revealing the depths of Dragnet’s cultural impact on how America thinks about policing, crime, and the cop show.
— Jason Mittell, author of Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling
- Introduction: Dragnet and the Police Procedural
- Chapter 1. “Our Neo-realism”: The Hollywood Semi-documentary Cycle
- Chapter 2. Silence, Not Sirens: Dragnet’s Aural Realism
- Chapter 3. Saturation and Citizenship: Dragnet on Television and in Culture
- Chapter 4. Professionalization and Public Relations: Dragnet and the LAPD
- Epilogue: “One of Us”