Crime dramas remain a staple on TV today, with much of the culture first formed by avid viewers who got hooked on early classics like Highway Patrol and Dragnet. It may interest some of those old-school fans to recall that in the case of Dragnet, its earliest radio audience almost didn't cross over to TV. According to PBS, Dragnet's focus on the people - including the victims of crime and their families - and dry, deadpan dialog, didn't add much visual interest to the screen, and early ratings were not as stellar as those looking back on the show's massive legacy are likely to remember.
Perhaps where Dragnet failed at first in 1951 was in not recognizing the added drama a great location can create as an intriguing backdrop for charged scenes. Like many crime dramas that came after, Dragnet was set in Los Angeles, but the camera rarely pans out to give the viewer a sense of place beyond a few cityscapes sprinkled in. Chalk it up to radio's growing pains on TV, but it would not be long before a crime drama would arrive that prominently featured its location - even while keeping the preciseness of that little detail a total mystery.
We're talking, of course, about Highway Patrol. When Highway Patrol started running its sirens across our screens in 1955, its star, Oscar-winning actor Broderick Crawford, ensured there would be an audience for it.
To help make Highway Patrol stand out and attract viewers in droves, the decision was made early on to make the setting of the show vague, so all the audience knows is that the show takes place somewhere in the western United States. That opened up the production company to shoot in many locations, hodgepodging scenes from Los Angeles outskirts, like Griffith Park, San Fernando Valley, and Simi Valley.
Beyond that, the production company behind Highway Patrol (Ziv Television Programs) was emphatic: Each episode was to be shot two days on location and one day in the studio, and no cost was spared to make sure the show was a visual spectacle. As a viewer, you might not know just where you were, but you knew you were somewhere magical, where crimes could be solved by one dogged police chief in less than 25 minutes.
So when Hawaii Five-O premiered in 1968, Highway Patrol had already laid the groundwork of how audiences positively respond to shocking crime in stunning scenes. Just ahead of Hawaii Five-O, there was also I Spy in 1965. That followed a pair of secret agents through exotic and varied location shoots in Hong Kong, Rome, Tokyo, Las Vegas, Morocco and more. These shows together may have been the reason why Jack Lord, once he was cast as Hawaii Five-O's star, stood his ground to insist the network allow the show to be entirely shot on location on the island.
According to The New York Times, it was in Lord's contract that he got to control every dramatic decision made on Hawaii Five-O, and our biased opinion is that he was absolutely right to say that starts with shooting in Hawaii itself. The network was not pleased, but viewers sure were. Check out these stunning shots from the first episode alone.
What we do know is that today's most successful crime dramas are all about location, location, location. Since Hawaii Five-O, we've seen shows include the cities in their names, from NYPD Blue to CSI: Las Vegas. Huge recent hits like Dexter (Miami), The Wire (Baltimore), True Detective (Louisiana, California, Arkansas), and Fargo (Minnesota) have been downright cinematic in displaying their chosen landscapes.
In this way, it seems that Hawaii Five-O set the stage for some of TV's best crime dramas to take us to the best places, pulling us closer to the TV and into these intricate worlds, where daring detectives like Captain Steve McGarrett make sure that wherever we are, we can rest assured that it's a safe place now.
So, cheers to Hawaii Five-O for breaking new ground in shows that solve crime. Thanks for turning TV on its head and taking us there!
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