Television is the enemy of the people. It broadcasts Fake News. It suppresses thought. We can’t let it dominate us. These media lessons originated with Jack Webb, one of the pioneers of television drama. Webb is best known for the police series Dragnet, first a 1949 radio show, then two incarnations on TV, from 1957 to 1970, where he famously portrayed “just the facts” cop Joe Friday. The latter episodes that now broadcast on the ME-TV cable channel bring back TV’s good old days but also prove Webb’s uncanny vision. Dragnet’s spare production values and pithy realism compacted assorted societal complexities, from ordinary crime to various psychopathologies, into 30-minute blocks.
Compared with the straightforward dramaturgy of Webb’s 1954 theatrical film Dragnet (just released on Blu-Ray from KINO), the Dragnet series doesn’t look like Millennial TV but resembles the modernist style of cineastes Sam Fuller, Robert Bresson, and Jean-Marie Straub. And like Fuller, Webb was a military vet turned Hollywood professional who sustained his patriotism through pop-art aesthetics. Webb brought probing Americanism to television; the best example is his 1962 drama Red Nightmare, a prediction of 21st-century progressivism that exposes what we now take for granted in Fake News TV.
In Red Nightmare, originally titled “Freedom and You,” Webb focused on Communist encroachment. It’s a Cold War parallel to today’s PC war. Webb imagined a national takeover in which citizens are told, “In America you have too many freedoms. One day it will be your mission to destroy those bourgeois capitalist freedoms.” Webb himself steps in as narrator and sets the scene:
From the looks of it, it could be Iowa, California, Tennessee. You might call this a college town, Communist-style, as part of a long-range plan to destroy our free way of life.
Webb’s intro pinpoints academia’s role in social revolution: “The strangest of all schools: espionage as a science, propaganda as an art, sabotage as a business — long-range Communist conspiracy.”
First shown to schools and social groups, Red Nightmare arose out of the film branch of the now-defunct Office of Armed Forces Information and Education, established post-WWII by the Department of Defense; the program was committed to producing patriotic American stories (PBS and NPR, no longer sharing such a commitment, have taken over these roles and reversed their ideology.) Red Nightmare was eventually broadcast on Webb’s GE True TV series, sponsored by the General Electric corporation. Today’s television and mainstream media use commercial spots and series for idealized portrayals of race, gender, and already-settled discussions about social justice; they criticize America for not being sufficiently woke, sufficiently communistic.
Webb saw this coming. Red Nightmare proposes a fundamentally transformed America where average white American TV dad Jerry (Jack Kelly) awakens to find his suburban town looking like barbed-wired East Berlin. Webb describes Jerry’s personal shock: “When there’s a job to be done, Jerry, like so many Americans, is apt to ask, ‘Why Me?’” But when anarchy invades his home, Jerry finds it impossible to avoid his patriotic responsibility. Webb’s Midtown, U.S.A., goes from a Rod Serling Twilight Zone fantasy to John Milius’s Red Dawn.
Media junkies who take The Twilight Zone with a grain of salt might scoff at Red Nightmare, but Webb, a true populist artist, targets their cynicism in ways that echo paranoia about the Deep State and the media. Jerry is warned:
When the moral fiber of the United States weakens and the economy collapses under the pressure of competitive coexistence, you will assume control. It will be your responsibility to purge the minds of reactionary Americans.
Jerry takes his precious freedoms for granted, unlike today’s college youths who are not complacent; their pseudo-sophistication thwarts those freedoms, as prerequisites for high-paying jobs at Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, which they perversely see as protecting political correctness — more important to them than freedom, especially when other people’s freedom triggers their privilege. Jerry’s daughter succumbs: “It’s true, Daddy. The party convinced me that I should free myself of the lingering bourgeois influence of family life.” She sounds exactly like she’s reading from the Black Lives Matter manifesto.
Red Nightmare was directed by George Waggner, produced at Warner Bros. under the personal supervision of mogul Jack L. Warner. In 1962, Communism was an alarmist’s simple explanation for anti-Americanism. The only real difference today is that media executives program “drama” and “information” television to reshape traditional political consciousness into wokism. TV turns FDR’s basic four freedoms into the anti-freedoms mentioned up top.
Jack Webb knew that TV’s impact as social conditioning went deep, yet his narrative ingenuity was never humorless. Jerry drags his kids to church (“Now you’re really gonna find out what the truth is all about”), but it’s been converted into the “People’s Museum: Soviet Inventions.” Red Nightmare’s prescient parable is TV’s most precise, exacting analogy for Millennial revolution.