Highway Patrol was a police drama that, much in the vein of Dragnet focused on the life and activities of American law enforcement officers.
The series, which aired form 1955-1959 and like The Adventures of Superman was syndicated (rather than airing in prime-time), starred character actor Broderick Crawford as the main protagonist, Capt. Dan Mathews, head of a highway patrol unit in a regional area that — although never stated — is implied to be in central California. (Indeed, the series was filmed with the cooperation of the California Highway Patrol.) Like Dragnet, episodes were introduced with a short opening monologue about the episode's main plot, after which the story played out. Usually but not always, this was criminals planning and (to varying degrees of success) carrying out a series of crimes, before Andrews and his officers would begin their investigation and ultimately stop the bad guys. The degree of urgency often varied widely, particularly when a hostage situation or other danger/loss of life was imminent. At episode's end, Crawford would deliver a short moral before inviting viewers to tune in again next week.
While crime and stopping criminals were the primary focus, a few episodes each season focused on traffic enforcement, with plots focusing on such things as reckless driving and habitual offenders, community service and so forth.
A total of 156 episodes were produced and aired during its four-year run. Because the workings of television syndication was far different in the 1950s than today, the scheduling of Highway Patrol varied greatly depending on the market; often, the show aired during off-peak hours on the weekends, or sometimes in pinch-hitting spots (such as when a live sporting event was rained out or ran short).
Considered realistic for the time and because of its fast-paced action style, Highway Patrol (like Dragnet) would inspire thousands of young men and women to pursue careers in law enforcement. Following its four-year run (depending on the market, "new" episodes sometimes aired in a given area as late as early 1961, two years after production ended), reruns would air throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s; Highway Patrol can still be seen today on the digital TV channel ThisTV.
Highway Patrol provides examples of the following tropes:
- And Knowing Is Half the Battle: A very early example with the Once per Episode ending, wherein Broderick Crawford gave a short moral stressing safety and so forth. For instance, "Leave your blood at the Red Cross, not on the highway!"
- Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop and Dirty Cop: Overwhelmingly, police officers were depicted as the good guys who were skilled and knew what they were doing. But on occasion, Lt. Mathews had to work with officers who, because of poor skill, limited abilities or other bad and/or reckless habits, put other officers in danger, result in jeopardizing an investigation and so forth. A couple of episodes depicted officers who either used the badge as a way to engage in criminal activity or police brutality, something that Mathews would put a stop to in short order.
- Chase Scene and Hot Pursuit: Surprisingly, not that many episodes featured one, due in part to Broderick Crawford's own legal problems (ironically, involving driving, which several episodes preached about) but to keep the budget reasonable. However, there were enough of these scattered throughout the series' run to satisfy most viewers.
- Every Episode Ending: Broderick Crawford delivering the moral or some other simple safety rule, followed by an invitation to viewers to tune in again next week.
- Framing Device: Much like the similar Dragnet, Crawford — always out of character — would introduce each episode with a short monologue about the upcoming episode.
- The Good Guys Always Win: Without fail, by episode's end.
- Instrumental Theme Tune: Like Dragnet, the show's theme has marching-inspired fanfare and dramatic sting.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: At times, Mathews comes across as unduly gruff ... but he has moments where he shows compassion.
- Just in Time: A frequent staple ... Mathews and an assortment of officers coming just before the bad guys make their getaway, before a hostage is killed, before a fire becomes deadly, etc.
- The Main Characters Do Everything: Depending on the week, Mathews might be investigating a string of homicides and/or robberies, while another week he and his team are seen working traffic enforcement.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: A first-season episode, "Hitchhiker," sees a hitchhiking young migrant worker bludgeoned to death on the side of the highway, after which the suspect places his body behind the wheel of his car and sends it careening over a tall cliff, making it appear like an accident. Mathews and his team, working with the coroner and forensics, are able to uncover the truth (the fatal blow was to the back of the head; the man's body went through the windshield as it was crashing at the bottom of the cliff ... after he was already dead. The crash was part of a string of similar deaths, perpetrated by a seemingly genial but migrant-hating storeowner who had concocted a scheme to collect on their insurance.
- Motive Rant: A frequent staple after the criminals were caught.
- The Name Is Bond, James Bond: A pre-Bond example ... Mathews frequently introduced himself by just his last name, although his close friends and co-workers do address him by his first name.
- Opening Narration: In the vein of Dragnet, in that it often tied into the plot of that week's episode.
- Police Procedural: Although not as well known or regarded as Dragnet, it was — thanks to assistance from the California Highway Patrol (for first- and early second-season episodes; other state patrols provided technical assistance later on once the CHP began disassociating itself from the show due to star Broderick Crawford's personal problems) a fair and accurate depiction of police work of the era.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: Several times, as the bad guys were giving their Motive Rant, they would go on about how their victims were deserving and so forth, only for Mathews to make a comeback. Example: In a second-season episode "Hot Rod," one of the criminals, who is woefully remorseful for his part in a deadly hit-and-run earlier in the episode, remarked that he never killed with a gun. Mathews reminded him that his vehicle in this case was the deadly weapon.
- Smug Snake: Several, in various episodes throughout the run.
- Speak Ill of the Dead: Several times, by the bad guys, claiming their victims had it coming or something. One example is the early second-season episode "Hot Rod," where the dominant partner of a criminal duo of brothers insists that the woman killed in a hit-and-run accident was just stupid enough to have been standing on the roadwaynote .
- Spiritual Predecessor: In a roundabout way, C Hi Ps ... it was implied (though not outright stated) that Highway Patrol took place in California (and in fact, at least for the first year or so, the show's assistance from the California Highway Patrol bore this out). The latter series did take place in southern California, and in fact one episode early in CHiPs run had a guest cameo by Broderick Crawford. Both series are distributed by MGM, too.
- They Fight Crime!: Just like Dragnet.