Thursday, March 20, 2008

37. The Monkees

Though it was only on for two seasons (which is really surprising to me as I thought it ran longer than that), “The Monkees” was an important show that had long-lasting ramifications on the television industry. Though that's not the reason why I like the show. Truthfully, I have no idea whether just preteens made up the audience or whether hippies thought it was a lame attempt of Hollywood scrubbing up the late 60s love movement for middle America (though both are probably true), but it is an enjoyable show. The show's plots aren't anything special and in most cases don't make a lot of sense, but you don't watch “The Monkees” for the plot. You watch for two reasons: the music and for the band members.

This entry isn't going to be a debate about the validity of the Monkees' music. Like many pop acts, there is some good stuff and some bad stuff, but the Monkees basically were a carbon copy of the Beatles from their Help! days. They were poppy, had a slight edge to some of their songs, but mostly sang about love and trivial subjects. The group had a lot of aid from professional song writers like Neil Diamond and Carole King, which made those subjects take on a more interesting tone. And the group also took advantage of session musicians until their musical chops were built up. However, a strict judgement on whether the music is “good”or “bad” misses the point of the show.

The point was to have a weekly show that would take suburbia into the wacky (albeit safe) lifestyle of the day's youth. Aside from a few things that never show (drug use, conjugal visits with scores of groupies, legendary battles with their producer Don Kirshner) I don't think that Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork or Davy Jones were playing characters that were too far off from themselves. The show was also among the first to use a lot of the slang that 60s youth was using. Most important about this is that the language didn't sound stilted or scripted. It also portrayed the youth of that time as caring and centered—having a good head on their shoulders—despite media reports that the baby boomer generation wasn't living up to their parents' generation and were shiftless and lazy.

While this probably went over the heads of older viewers—if it reached them at all—this is probably the main reason why the show resonated with a lot of young people. Here was a show with young people getting by without a care in the world. The only time that a problem did enter their world was brought in by a person outside of their “universe”, normally someone from their previous generation who didn't, or couldn't, understand the world today. The Monkees normally took care of this problem through nonviolent, and often slapstick, means which resulted not in vanquishing the foes, but turning enemies into friends.

Was that the way of the world? No. But it was a television show that never made any bones that it was more cartoon than documentary.

Despite the cartoon nature of the show, there were some serious aftershocks of “The Monkees”. For one thing, it was one of the first instances to prove the power of music on television. Yes, Ricky Nelson became a heart throb to millions of girls in the early 60s after singing a few songs on his parents' show “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”, but the Monkees were a juggernaut that provided their audiences with new songs week after week after week. And you pair those new songs with movie shorts, interspliced with the television show (often these shorts had zero to do with the program's main plot) and kids seemed to love the song much more.

Thus, the music video was born.

And it wasn't just the music industry that was revolutionized. While “Dobbie Gillis” was the first to break down the so-called “fourth wall”—where an actor talks to the audience—the Monkees also did this and further shattered the illusion of television when the cast members would stop the action to converse with camera men and stage hands while the show was being filmed. This nonlinear form of television was also extended to drawn out dream and fantasy sequences and inserts and jump cuts. All of these innovations have had a profound impact on the television and movies that we watch even today.

No matter what the ramifications that the shows had on later television programs or any social impact that it may or may not have had, the bottom line is that “The Monkees” were a fun program. Any time you tuned in, you knew what you were going to get and that's ok. Because a show does not deviate from it's norm, that doesn't make it a bad show. This is precisely what killed the band though.

Fed up with their bubble gum image, once the show was cancelled in 1968, they along with a young actor/writer named Jack Nicholson came up with a movie called “Head”. Written over a weekend where a lot of acid was ingested, the movie's first scene opened with the band jumping off a bridge and killing themselves. It only got weirder from there. The group's core base of fans (mostly young teens) were confused as to the radical 180 degree turn the band took and rejected them.

And the group of fans that the band did want—the more serious, older hipster crowd—thought that they were a fake band that was put together by Hollywood suits. They literally were a band without an audience and with their show running (and doing well) in constant reruns, the Monkees were constantly reminded of the past and how things once were. The Monkees would break up, try solo endeavors and reunite over the next 30 years, but they always remained in America's pop culture consciousness.

For me, and other members of my generation, the Monkees were a summer TV show first and foremost, I had no idea that the group had any chart success at all. Every June, Channel 56 knew that kids were being let out for summer break and would schedule the show to run in the afternoon. And I'd be in front of the tube watching as jokes about 60s culture went flying over my head. I watched an episode recently and the group was in ghost town being held hostage by gangsters. Mickey used an old phone and was hoping to get Marshall Dillon (the erstwhile sheriff from “Gunsmoke” to help out). He got a grizzly prospector who said that there is a Dylan in town (Bob Dylan) who could write a protest song for you, but couldn't help much more than that. Interesting (and funny) juxtaposition of Bob Dylan and Marshall Dillon, but one that an eight-year-old would never get.

That's what I get when I tune into “The Monkees” now, I get to remember what it was like when I was younger and had zero responsibilities and I'm able to appreciate some witty writing. That's not a bad two-for-one combination.

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