The original pre-fabricated pop-music/comedy sensation
The Story So Far...
Now, my daughter is part of the first generation of "cloud kids," who have never known anything but round-the-clock access to basically anything they want to enjoy, without even leaving the house (I at least had to get on my bike and ride to Video Plus if I wanted to watch Condorman for the 40th time.) And to her, there's not a lot separating the five decades of TV created before she could speak. So I enjoy introducing her to the shows I watched as a kid, to see if we share tastes in our DNA. With Antenna TV, I was able to show her The Monkees, which she had an immediate attachment to. Now, with these DVDs, she can become as obsessed as I once was.
The Monkees TV show was born of a brilliant concept, as it blended comedy and music in a new way, telling the story of a struggling rock band trying to pay the bills until they get their big break. Made up of four guys with very defined, very relatable personalities, not unlike the Fab Four, the band was perfect for '60s television, as the series was counter-culture yet clean-cut, surreal yet mainstream, like a live-action cartoon for the whole family. Despite being mostly wholesome in tone (heck, it's directly in the theme song that they're too busy singing to put anybody down) there's a subversive undercurrent that peeks out in spots, particularly early on, like the Bunuel-lite freak-out that is the dueling scene in "Royal Flush." Most of the time though they are just trying to make a little money, only to find themselves caught up in some sort of trouble (with the exception of the odd season finale, which follows the band on their real-world tour, documentary style, in a complete break from the show's format.)
The comedy is actually rather timeless, emerging mostly from visual gags and slapstick, though it probably plays better to younger audience thanks to the silliness (and the vaudevillian feel of much of Peter's dialogue.) Subtle is not a term to be used in describing this show, which easily slots in alongside great over-the-top series like Police Squad and Get Smart!. Peter plays the country bumpkin to fine effect and Micky is never above a silly voice or costume, or mugging for the camera. Their goofy personalities are balanced out by the show's straight men, with Mike's nearly Zen-like intellectualism and Davy's romantic nature, which help ground the series and keep it from floating into some wacky upper atmosphere. That was key, since it didn't seem like there was a gimmick the show wouldn't embrace, be it sped-up film, stock footage, broken fourth walls, on-screen text or other special effects, which became trademarks of the series. Some of the more extreme elements were phased out over the first season though, most notably the on-screen text, which was eliminated early on.
Obviously in a show about a band, music is as important as anything else, and it was a big part of this series, despite the disrespect heaped on a band known by some as the "Pre-fab Four." While it's true the band didn't come together organically and they were assigned instruments based on how the band would look on-screen, the music they played (and they did play instruments and sing) was as catchy as anything to come out of the era, with a folk-tinged rock sound that delivered a load of memorable hits, including "Last Train to Clarksville," "Steppin' Stone," "Mary, Mary" and "I'm a Believer." In the show, they were frequently performed as "romps," proto-music videos that saw the gang running around, either having fun, performing or avoiding that episode's bad guys (much like the chase scenes on Benny Hill.) The only downside to these segments is the frequency with which they were repeated. "Last Train to Clarksville" alone is in five of the 32 episodes, and even a lesser-known track like "Your Auntie Grizelda" makes three separate appearances.
One of the great things about getting these episodes in these mostly unadulterated versions (if there are any changes, they aren't easy to spot) are the historical elements, like the overt sponsorships, in the form of Kellogg's boxes spread through the credits or the Kellogg's jingle sung by The Monkees. These shows are also from a less-enlightened time, so you get an episode like "Monkee Chow Mein," which isn't too kind in its portrayal of the Chinese. Fortunately, this part of TV history isn't whitewashed, unlike, say, old WB cartoons, so we can remember how completely acceptable this was once upon a time. There's also the opportunity to see a ton of familiar faces who guested on the show, many of whom seem to have been old for at least 50 years. The guest list includes Stan Freberg, Vic Tayback, Charlie Callas, Richard Kiel, Mike Farrell, Julie Newmar, Foster Brooks and Bobby Sherman. It's practically a Charo short of a Love Boat.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are artificial constructs, given the show's original mono broadcasts, and they end up sounding hollow, with the overall effect being a softer sound, versus the center-balanced 2.0's stronger presentation. The audio is pretty solid anyway, with the songs coming off clean and crisp (for the most part), and distortion-free dialogue.
On each disc is an option to play all the "romps" of that disc in a group. Though the music is a lot of fun to listen to, this format can be a bit much, especially when the same song is repeated several times, sometimes consecutively.
Also included is a black-and-white/sepia-toned/seemingly colorized 16mm pilot shot for the series, which is very similar to the eventual 10th episode of the series, but far less polished, with an earlier version of the theme song that's slower and not sung by the band. It's followed by almost six minutes of commercials featuring the band, for Kellogg's, Yardley Black Label cologne and the Monkees' series. The Kellogg's bits fit right in with the show (shot at the same time as the sponsor announcement included with the episodes), but just aren't as funny. And boy, after hearing it several times in a row, that jingle grates on you. But again, the historical value of these is great.
A 24-minute interview with Hart gives you more insight into the show's music and the songwriting business at the time, though there is some overlap with his commentary. Unfortunately, he's not the most engaging speaker, so 24 minutes of him sitting and talking can get a bit tough to get through. The memorabilia gallery is far more fascinating, as you can flip through a bunch of stills, correspondence and articles about the show and group, including a casting memo that harshly sums up each auditioning actor in phrases like "Bland - Pass."
The Bottom Line