Lugubrious Music, Openings, Closings
Lugubrious music, openings, closings...these are what I remember from many TV series from the 50s, Dragnet being the most famous. Over the past year I've reacquainted myself with two very popular shows from my childhood, both produced by that Quinn Martin of syndicated series producers, Fred Ziv: Sea Hunt and Highway Patrol.
Both shows were excellent at what they did, and I find them highly watchable, entertaining and often informative, literally educational. Yet both began with heavy, doomed laden music, in the case of Highway Patrol, accompanied by stern narration ("whenever the laws of any state are broken a duly authorized law enforcement agency swings into action..."). Both shows sort of "pose" as documentaries, though they're obviously fiction. At the end of each episode, after things are wrapped up, the credits roll, and once more that funereal music kicks in. Not funereal as in the kind of music one would hear at a funeral but rather music so joyless and downbeat one practically expects a funeral to follow.
The 50s was supposedly a happy decade for America, but was it? Many of the TV series of the period suggest as much, others don't. This was, after all, the Cold War era, and a kind of para-military mood prevailed, in real life and on television. It's certainly there in those two Ziv shows, one of which features the state police (even though its lead player doesn't wear a uniform), while the other has a former navy frogman as the hero. Ziv produced two other series that were even more military in tone, literally; one about West Point, the other, Annapolis.
I wouldn't categorize either Highway Patrol or Sea Hunt as downbeat, as the intention of each was to reassure the viewer that our highways and waterways are safely guarded by strong men who know how to do their jobs. However there's a humorless quality to these shows: no jokes, no comic relief, scarcely anyone has a private life. Although leading characters Dan Mathews and Mike Nelson like their work, don't mess around, always in the end resolve whatever problem they faced at the beginning, it's like they're both on guard duty all the time, 24/7. They're our sentries. We can play, go to the beach, sing, laugh and dance, because these men do their jobs. In this these two shows offer us the grim, sober other side of the coin of American life: some make sacrifices so that others can be merry. And it's true, as much now as then. Whenever I catch an episode of one of these shows I'm impressed. Shorn of melodrama, taken as windows on the real world, they're strong stuff.