Over the summer when I took a break for lunch, I’d pull up a slice of childhood on the computer. The website Hulu has full episodes of Adam-12, the police procedural that ran on NBC from September, 1968 through May of 1975. As a child, the irony was lost on me that in the midst of an unpopular war and major cultural upheaval, there was a show on television that celebrated law and order as well as conservative values. Many of the perpetrators of crime on the series each week were portrayed as long-haired hippies bent on free love and helping themselves to a homeowner’s hi-fi. Jack Webb, the most conservative of television producers, created Adam-12 as a sort of spinoff of his original LAPD detective procedural, Dragnet, where Webb himself played Sergeant Joe Friday. Webb was an original L.A. baby, born in Santa Monica and raised in Bunker Hill and Echo Park. Arguably, Webb broke new ground in television; his shows were the first to take America inside the LAPD culture, a milieu that was responding to the Watts riots of 1965, and would lead directly to the civil unrest after the Rodney King verdict twenty years later. Adam-12 starred Martin Milner and Kent McCord as the two uniform patrol officers, Pete Malloy and Jim Reed, out in the big city keeping the world safe for democracy.
As each episode unfolds, I recognize streets in Los Angeles, especially those in the San Fernando Valley. The division patrolled by the two officers is never clearly identified, but the streets are, both visually and over the police radio when the unit received calls. The stories in each episode mix whimsical comedy and serious crime drama. The officers might be called to rescue a kid with his head stuck between the bars of a wrought iron fence followed by a “2-11 in progress,” radio parlance for an armed robbery. Webb tried to stoke the fire of his stories with realism, and enlisted the help of several police advisors as well as the police chiefs in office during the run of the show. Watching Adam-12 in 2012, I am struck by the wooden dialogue and the acting. However, back in the day, I was riveted to the screen each week, and my elementary school dream was to be a policeman. What does catch my attention now is the fact that I have rarely seen L.A. captured truthfully on screen. Adam-12 does to some extent. Other shows come close, but few hit it dead on.
Los Angeles lacks neighborhoods with visual identifiers. There are no boroughs, or distinctive landmarks other than the Hollywood sign, a visual cliché if there ever was one. L.A. can be any city, and if there were distinguishing features, the studios would be unable to film here. Shows like E.R., Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, CSI New York and Miami, and NYPD Blue were all shot in their day right here in Los Angeles. The city of angels played all the parts: Chicago, Boston, New York, and Miami. For a major metropolis, Los Angeles is a great actor; its portrayal was always convincing, even when blanketed with movie magic snow. So this means that although L.A. can act the part of other cities, it cannot be itself convincingly. Okay, maybe L.A. was L.A. in LA Law, but that was the rarified, wealthy Los Angeles, a place few of the working class people who drive the streets to work each day ever see, much less inhabit.
Los Angeles is the theatre that must house every kind of set of every possible play, otherwise the Hollywood crowd would go elsewhere, as they have done in the past when things got too expensive here. Toronto, Vancouver, somewhere in Europe—they all want to be the actor L.A. is, but the weather is too cold, the infrastructure too unstable. When it comes to playing itself, though, L.A. lacks the defining character traits like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Empire State Building. Its uniqueness comes from its mix of people, its juxtapositions, its—dare I say it?—subtleties. That is one term you never hear coupled with Los Angeles—subtlety. Los Angeles does have a subtle character beneath the garish grease paint and pancake makeup.
As for Pete Malloy and Jim Reed on Adam-12, speeding through the streets of L.A. to another call, the series got old for me very quickly on those lunch breaks. After Rodney King, the Christopher Commission, the Rampart Scandal, no one believes in Jack Webb’s version of the LAPD anymore. It’s a fantasy. And maybe that is more realism than even Sergeant Friday could tolerate.