The second season is both better and worse than that which had come before. It's better in the sense that the Monkees, an ersatz rock band originally created by Hollywood types, took more control over their music, their onscreen characters and, to a lesser degree, the general direction of the show. But it was also a mixed blessing. On one hand, the songs became more personal, and individual styles began to emerge. Some of the tunes that debuted in the second season, at least those actually written by members of the band, don't have that generic prefab sound, though that's not always a good thing. Where the Beatles only seemed to get better (if occasionally indulgent) over time, the Monkees' music is, at best, inconsistent. Some of Michael Nesmith's songs are quite good, but the band also produced some really bad tunes that will have you longing for earlier, innocuous hits like "Daydream Believer."
The show had too many cooks, and that was its biggest problem. On one side were the moneymen who simply wanted to cash in on Beatlemania, while some of the behind-the-scenes talent (most famously writer Paul Mazursky and director Bob Rafelson) wanted to make the program more subversive and cutting edge, at least by contemporary television standards. The result was a hodgepodge of inharmonious ideas and styles. The show was inarguably unique, but still hog-tied to network standards & practices, formula constrictions, with everything lacquered with an aggressive, relentless laugh track.
The second season shows continued to imitate the style established by director Richard Lester in A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965). The first show, "It's a Nice Place to Visit," is a typical example. Spoofing south of the border Westerns, the Monkees (heartthrob Brit Davey Jones, folksy Texan Michael Nesmith, wild comic Mickey Dolenz, and hippie patsy Peter Tork), along with their Monkeemobile, are stranded in a remote Mexican village, and must battle stereotypical banditos. Like most every show of the series, what little story there is eventually falls apart and the Monkees are cut loose. They run around the backlot sets improvising clumsy, often nonsensical gags with painfully calculated irreverence. Watching episodes like this, one can only commend and feel sympathy for the show's team of editors, who clearly worked overtime giving The Monkees what energy it has. The Monkees themselves were not without a sense of humor, but they weren't particularly adept at improvisation, and it shows. In this second series, Davey Jones seemed stuck in his carefully marketed role of pre-teen idol, but Peter Tork's offscreen counterculture lifestyle and Michael Nesmith's burgeoning songwritng career and efforts to include interviews with bonafide cutting-edge musicians like Frank Zappa give the program a much-needed boost. Tork's character is at the center of "The Devil and Peter Tork," a better than average show cribbed from The Devil & Daniel Webster, in which Tork sells his soul to obtain a classical harp (and the ability to play it expertly). Episodes like this illustrate how Tork's Monkee persona had evolved from generic Ringo-esque patsy to a Ringo-esque patsy adorned with paisley and beads, sort of a wide-eyed cross between Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Stan Laurel.
Perhaps because Tork really was a part of the counter-culture movement, the hippie aspects of his character appear somewhat more genuine. At a time in which virtually every sitcom did a hippie-themed show, from Dragnet (practically every episode) to Gilligan's Island, Tork at least, comes off as sincere. Nevertheless, the program never could completely break away from its sitcomland roots. Tellingly, in the second-to-last episode, "Monkees Blow Their Minds," Zappa and Nesmith openly condemn the show and its faux band, but this soon gives way to the Monkees merrily singing the praises of Kellogg's cereal, one of the show's sponsors.
Video & Audio
Filmed in 35mm and, as they used to say back then, "living color," The Monkees (Season Two) looks great, better than ever, with only minor negative dirt and age-related wear. A 5.1 track is offered alongside the original mono. I found the 5.1 great for the songs but less so with the show itself. Included is an option to skip immediately to each episode's songs.
Rhino has done a great job packaging The Monkees (Season Two). The box itself is cleverly modeled after a '60s-style record player, with the five discs looking like mini 45s. Each show includes several onscreen pages of liner notes, courtesy Aaron Handy III, while Andrew Sandoval contributes a four-page overview of the season for the actual booklet -- all of which is impressively detailed, informative, and fun. All four Monkees provide commentary tracks for selected episodes, though never as a team. Individually, they're frank about the show's shortcomings and infighting. Nesmith, for instance, describes the experience as a "mixture of anarchy and hubris," admitting, by the second season, "I was really almost just showing up for work." But their honestly is refreshing at a time when audio commentaries are fast becoming as sanitized as the Monkees themselves. Nesmith and Tork especially offer insight on the show's music, generously identifying and praising the contributions of studio musicians and others who worked mostly in the shadows.
The prime extras are found on the fifth disc. "The Monkees in NYC from NBC News Archives" is dated July 6, 1967, and the one-minute clip, shot in 16mm (which seems to be missing narration), shows the group waving at fans from their window at the Warwick Hotel, and holding a press conference where Peter Tork responds to questions about the team breaking up. "33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee" is an April 14, 1969 network television special, an almost indescribable pot pourri of chroma-key induced psychedelia. The premise is like something out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and mildly interesting as a further deconstruction and condemnation of their prefab image. Even non-fans will want to sample bits of this one-hour program, in color and shot on tape, if only for the incredible image of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard performing on three pianos stacked one atop the other. I sampled Mickey Dolenz's commentary track for the special; he remembers tiny little details, but is also "on" most of the time, which may appeal to fans but not me. The death throes continue with "The Monkees on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," from February 5, 1969. Minus Tork, the Monkees show up for two minute-long gags, neither of which is amusing or, seemingly, rehearsed.
The Monkees are often referred to as the "Pre-Fab Four," but pop stars from Motown to the Beatles were all, to some extent, groomed and marketed and their image controlled in much the same way, sometimes even by themselves. The Monkees were only the ultimate expression of this. (Actually, the Archies were even worse -- they didn't even exist.) That they managed to evolve into a real honest-to-goodness pop band that still performs (though generally not all four at once) to enthusiastic audiences is, if nothing else, a testament to their durability.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.