Friday, December 11, 2020

EMMYS 1969: Get Smart (season 4)

 NETWORK: NBC

Get Smart got a shot in the arm in its fourth season with a bit of a new direction along with a new showrunner, Arne Sultan taking on Executive Producer duties from Leonard Stern. For the fourth season, the writers decided to resolve the romantic tension between Max and 99 and married them. The first third of the season is their engagement and follows their wedding plans. These episodes are almost serialized a bit with the wedding through-line, and it gives a bit of added life to the show keeping it from being too formulaic late in its run. For instance, there's an episode about buying an engagement ring, an episode about choosing a best man, an episode about meeting the in-laws, and each is its own little spy story. The back half of the season has Max and 99 in their new married life, which gave producers an excuse to redecorate Max's apartment. If we learned anything from I Love Lucy, it's that producers love to change the set to keep things fresh. 

It could have been a terrible idea to get Max and 99 together romantically and make them a married couple, and yet I think it works pretty well. The new dynamic adds to their relationship as work partners, while they have to navigate their personal feelings against the missions. Max wants to protect 99, and she wants to protect Max, and often enough they save each other. Besides, in the life of a spy, where will you ever find love but in the arms of another spy? In one delightful episode, Max is so worried about her that he hires a couple of students from CONTROL spy school to keep tabs on her, but she mistakes them for KAOS agents and keeps trying to lose them. Agent 99 is a capable woman and spy, and it's good the show never forgets this. She is intelligent and resourceful and when she needs Max, she always has backup.

The upcoming nuptials provide for fun story opportunities, such as Max having to meet 99's mother and maintain his cover as a greeting card salesman. The episode in which Max proposes is very nicely handled, I thought. The wedding episode itself was one of the better TV wedding episodes I've seen, though 99's very mod '60s dress is... interesting, particularly the headpiece. Incidentally, a well-placed snore obscures 99's real name during their marriage vows.

 Max & 99 Wedding | Hollywood star, Show photos, Tv couples

The Smarts' honeymoon also leads to an absurd and delightful episode sending up Gilligan's Island, in which they are shipwrecked and wash up on Schwartz's Island (named for Gilligan creator Sherwood Schwartz) and come upon a KAOS plot. The episode was filmed on the actual Gilligan's Island sets.

In "To Sire, With Love," Max's double, the King of Caronia from last season, returns for a two-part episode. Guest starring as the villain is none other than a young James Caan! Another episode is a parody of contemporary police drama Ironside, about a wheelchair-bound detective. In this case, the wheelchar-bound Leadside is a criminal mastermind bent on destroying Smart.

The Chief gets more to do this season as well, such as when Max and the Chief end up serving together in the Navy, with Max as the Chief's superior. At the end of the season, the Chief is kidnapped and taken to a POW camp run by KAOS, leading to a riff on The Great Escape, directed by Don Adams.

Though sometimes the stories are a little stale and the show is not always quite as funny as it was in earlier seasons, I felt season four to be a real jolt of life into the show. I enjoyed season three a lot, but I thought season four gave them a bit more creative license to liven things up, which is what you want late in a show's run. This would in fact prove to be the show's final season on NBC. However, CBS picked it up for a fifth season. Season four would go on to not only win for Comedy Series for the second time, but would get Don Adams his third consecutive Emmy for Actor in a Comedy Series. During his acceptance speech, he said, "I would like to thank NBC for giving me the chance to win this again for the third time, and CBS for picking me up next year and giving me another crack at it!"

As it turned out, no nominations would follow for that fifth season, and it would be the final one for the show. Domestic plots would continue for the Smarts, as Agent 99 would deliver twin babies and the show wouldn't know how to write around them. But even cancellation was not the end for Get Smart. A decade later, Maxwell Smart would leap to the big screen (without Barbara Feldon), in The Nude Bomb. This theatrical feature would later be followed by a TV movie, Get Smart Again, for which Agent 99 returned. In 1995, 30 years after the series premiered, a short-lived reboot aired on Fox. Adams and Feldon returned to reprise their roles, now running CONTROL, while the series followed a new agent, their son, played by Andy Dick. I watched it back when it aired, but it lasted only seven episodes. Those curious can find it on DVD, if it's still in print. Finally, a theatrical remake of the series eventually came starring Steve Carrell in the role of Smart and Anne Hathaway as Agent 99. Despite its ups and downs, Get Smart remained a show with a legacy, one of quality and comedy that still holds up.

FAVORITE EPISODES: The Impossible Mission, The Worst Best Man, With Love and Twitches, Schwartz's Island, One Nation Invisble, The Day They Raided the Knights, Greer Window

UP NEXT: My World and Welcome To It



 

Saturday, September 5, 2020

EMMYS 1968: Get Smart (season 3)

John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV: Outré Intro: Get  Smart (1965-1970)

NETWORK: NBC

Following the second World War, the United States fell into a Cold War with the Soviet Union. During this time, stories of international espionage, from war stories to new stories of intelligence against foreign enemies, gained popularity. For popular culture, this culminated in the James Bond series of films which began with Sean Connery in the title role in 1962. This led to other spy offerings, such as Secret Agent (aka Danger Man), The Avengers, and others. But of course, when anything gets popular so does the comedic parody of it. Bond film had several tongue-in-cheek imitators, and into this stew of the serious and silly spy series surfaced Get Smart.

Created by comedy writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Get Smart followed the adventures of Maxwell Smart, a secret agent for the American organization Control, as he battled the nefarious foreign organization Kaos (chaos vs control, get it?). Kaos was a sort of non-specific other of our European foes, often Russian, but some German thrown in there as well, particularly in the character of Siegfried, the primary antagonist. Smart, Agent 86 (his number is a joke, as to "86" someone is old slang for killing them) is played by Don Adams, at the time perhaps best recognized as the voice of Tennessee Tuxedo in the old cartoon show (and known to later generations as the voice of Inspector Gadget). He teams up with a female partner known only as Agent 99, played by Barbara Feldon, and has all sorts of silly escapades. In this season, 99's real name was briefly revealed, only for it to have been a false undercover name at the end of the episode. One of the series mandates from the creators was that her name never be known, and the show sticks to that.

Get Smart was a single camera comedy series, which makes sense stylistically. It's shooting style parodies a more serious television intrigue drama of the day such as Mission: Impossible. The primary signal of its comedic sentiment in terms of television style is the ever-present laugh track. This type of series, already innovated by shows like The Monkees, moving away from the three-camera sitcom, would continue, laugh track included, into the following decade. 

Get Smart is perhaps best remembered for its iconic title sequence, in which Smart pulls up to his office building and then descends the stairs to pass through a series of enormous doors down a long corridor to a phone booth, inside which he drops through the floor. Series star Don Adams sells the moment very well because I had never actually considered that in reality he was just crouching down in the phone booth; no floor actually drops in the shot. During the show's closing credits, Smart returns and does the sequence in reverse (only to get his nose caught in a door).



I first saw Get Smart when I was a kid in reruns on Nickelodeon. And not just on Nick at Nite; they actually ran it mid-day for awhile. I was instantly a fan because the goofy humor plays to a broad age range. There's always something funny about a man talking into a shoe. Our modern ubiquitous cell phones make the idea of a phone in a shoe a little less ridiculous, don't they? But I hadn't seen the show for years, and I discovered many episodes this season that I didn't remember seeing.

The series' third season continued much as the previous seasons had, though by this time co-creator Buck Henry had left the show. There were a number of celebrity cameos from personalities like Bob Hope, and a guest spots from Carol Burnett and Don Rickles. The Rickles episode actually turned into a two-parter because he and Adams riffed so much the show became too long.

Get Smart allowed itself to play a little beyond parody of the spy genre. For example, in "Mawell Smart, Private Eye", cutbacks force Max to moonlight as a private investigator and the episode sends up the classic '40s noir detective style. In "The Mild Ones", Max and 99 go undercover with a motorcycle gang. Smart gets a black partner for an episode in a nod to the contemporary series I Spy which starred Bill Cosby. In another, Smart becomes a fugitive pursuing the one-armed man who framed him; sound familiar? And in a send-up of The Prisoner of Zenda, Don Adams plays dual roles as both Smart and his double, the king of a foreign nation. Doubles feature a few times this season. The episode that won the Emmy was "The Spy Who Met Himself" in which KAOS creates lookalikes to infiltrate control. Once again, Adams flexes his acting muscles playing Smart's doppelganger.

Like other series of the late 1960s, particularly those written by old comedy veterans of the '50s, shots were fired at the growing hippie culture and psychedelia. If The Monkees showed us that the kids were all right, Get Smart answers back that there's still something wrong with them in "The Groovy Guru". A mysterious radio DJ called the Groovy Guru is hypnotizing America's youth through rock music that turns them into mindless go-go dancing zombies. I'll let you decide if there's an underlying message there.

Another aspect of late '60s television is the slow shift in broadcast standards. One of Control's top scientists is a woman, Dr. Steele, who works undercover as a stripper/burlesque dancer. This is a little more risque than we were used to in an era when Mary Tyler Moore had to fight to wear slacks and Barbara Eden still can't show her bellybutton on I Dream of Jeannie.

But the series has its broader silly side, such as the fact Control has a robot working for them named Hymie. He's more an android, played by Dick Gautier with very robotic movements. Gautier's physical comedy sensibilities are surprisingly good in this role. After a tune-up, he jumps about uncontrollably and it's both funny and convincing. I quite enjoyed Gautier's performance. Hymie appears in several episodes this season. The best is "When Good Fellows Get Together". Here, KAOS builds their own evil robot, and only Hymie can stop him. It's a funny show, but there's a lot of subtext to the writing. Hymie constantly worries that he and Max aren't friends and that he's treated differently because he's not human. He has a few lines that made me wonder, especially considering his name is Hymie, if the writers were making a statement about the treatment of Jews. Regardless, Hymie doesn't want to fight against Groppo, the KAOS robot. He thinks they can be friends. Ultimately, when a fight must come, Hymie deduces "nice is nice, but enough is enough." It's a good exploration of pursuing peace when possible, but not being a pushover. 

Though perhaps not as strong as earlier seasons, season three of Get Smart is a lot of fun with a variety of styles and gags that are both of their time and timeless. It is very well-shot, especially given time and budget restraints of television. Don Adams shows off his great talent, even directing episodes. It's no surprise that he won the Emmy for lead actor in a comedy for the second consecutive year. This season the series also picked up a Direction award and a nomination for Feldon. 


FAVORITE EPISODES:
The Spy Who Met Himself; One of Our Olives is Missing; When Good Fellows Get Together, The Mild Ones, Don't Look Back, 99 Loses Control

UP NEXT: Get Smart (again!)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

In Defense of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah

The recent upsets of racial tension in the United States and demands for dismantling of "systemic racism" has led yet again to laser-focused attacks on anything historical that may have racist underpinnings. This has eventually led to the Disney company and it's theme park attraction Splash Mountain. First opened in the 1990s, Splash Mountain is a log flume ride most known for its iconic steep drop at the end into water. But the interior of the ride is modeled on animated characters from Disney's Song of the South, the 1946 feature film that already has a spotty history and presence for the company. None of the racial overtones ascribed to the film are particularly present in modern usages of the animated characters divorced from the context of the film. Yet the very existence of Song of the South tie-ins and the use of its theme song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" have led to cries that the ride be rebranded as a Princess and the Frog ride. And it seems Disney has caved to the pressure. This essay is not a defense of Splash Mountain or even of the Song of the South film, both subjects for another time, but of the theme song itself. I think wiping it from memory or writing it off as historically racist is wrong.

But what if it is truly historically racist?
Before I delve into my main counter arguments, let's hypothetically agree that the song has racism at its root. Does that then mean we must eliminate it from existence? I don't think that argument is strong enough. The vast majority of Disney-goers and young people today with any familiarity with this 75-year-old song do not have associations with older American folk musicology. To them, the words "zip-a-dee-doo-dah" hold no more racial overtone than "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" or any other nonsensical Disney lyric. And divorced of that phrase, the song is just a jaunty tune about what a beautiful day it is apart from maybe the racially-tinged neologism "satisfactual". But since modern slang is rife with incorrect grammatical phraseology (including the trendy use of "being woke"), I suspect that too remains innocuous for most.

What then is the merit in eliminating the song? If its present day incarnation doesn't carry racist associations for people, is it doing any harm or perpetuating stereotypes? If we must remove "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", surely the next step is wiping out any children's book or film or show that uses "eenie meenie minie mo", since that rhyme also originates in a racist place. But children today don't know it that way, and divorced from its context it seems fine. For that matter, we still teach children to sing "Yankee Doodle", a song written to mock Americans, but which now survives mainly as a reclaimed nonsense song. What of the 1990s Disney cult classic Hocus Pocus? Sure, that seems good clean Halloween fun until you learn that the phrase "hocus pocus" is thought to originate as a mockery of the Latin Mass. Should American Catholics be offended that pagan magic, however fanciful, is associated with mockery of the body of Christ? That's blasphemous, anti-religious bigotry. But no one calls for Disney to rename its movie to Abra Cadabra because the words "hocus pocus" may historically be anti-Christian and offensive. All that context is buried in the sands of time and to modern audiences it's mere nonsense words no different from Merlin's "higgitus figgitus" or Harry Potter's "wingardium leviosa".

If one has to dredge up research in order to even associate it with racism, maybe it's not a big deal. Contemporary popular culture has divorced it of its meaning, just as Marvel's Sinister Six doesn't imply that left-handed people are evil. So even if we were to agree that the song has undeniable racist origin, I think there's a fair argument that it lacks much of that association, particularly for today's children who have never seen Song of the South since it has been out of circulation for over 30 years and don't have those associations.

The "racist" history of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" -- the argument
The song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", written to be sung by the black character Uncle Remus in the movie, opens and revolves around the phrase "zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay". And apart from it being sung by a black character, this seems to be the sole basis for the assertion it has racist overtones, as it is suggested that the phrase has its roots in an old racist variant of "Turkey in the Straw" known as "Zip Coon" or "Old Zip Coon". The song predates the Civil War, dating to the 1830s or 1840s. Very much associated with minstrel shows and that sort of racial stereotyping, the verses are written in a mock-Negro patois, and the chorus is simply the repeated refrain "Zip a duden duden Zip a duden day".

I will certainly not defend "Zip Coon" as a character conception or as a song, nor its verses. But the entire case against "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" seems to be in the belief that the phrase "zip a dee doo dah" was influenced by "zip a duden day", and therefore is racist by association. I was curious if there was much scholarship to back this up, such as songwriters mentioning influence. I did only cursory research here, but checked out the Wikipedia articles associated with both songs.  They assert influence and provide a citation. The citation leads to a 1997 book by Ken Emerson titled Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture.

Emerson's assertion is also little more than a sentence, reading "In addition to its enduring incarnation as 'Turkey in the Straw,' 'Zip Coon,' or at least its nonsensical chorus -- 'O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day' -- also survives in 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,' from the soundtrack for Song of the South, Walt Disney's animated version of Joel Chandler Harris's 'Uncle Remus' tales." And that's it. But I am hesitant to agree with Emerson's conclusions, as in the very next sentence he declares that Mickey Mouse himself is a racist caricature, being "a cartoon of a cartoon, his black skin, exaggerated facial features, white gloves and big feet an updated Ethiopian delineation." Now, this is easily refutable and gross oversimplification.

Mickey Mouse's design is essentially a rework of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whose design is almost identical. And likewise that design and others is most probably heavily influenced by Felix the Cat. The fact that all of these characters have black fur is not evidence of racially-influenced design. All animated cartoons were in black and white in the 1910s and '20s, and designs relied heavily on easy contrast designs of black ink on white. Mickey's white gloves don't even appear in his earliest shorts; they were added later to provide more contrast and make his hands more visible. Exaggerated facial features of course are for the cartooniness of conveying emotion and are not limited to "racial" character designs. Again, see Felix the Cat or Betty Boop. Not to mention the strongest argument that Mickey's design as is is not "blackface": the character himself sometimes does blackface (for example, portraying Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom's Cabin in "Mickey's Mellerdrammer"). While historically there were African American stage performers who did perform in blackface, suggesting that Mickey would essentially be blackface on top of blackface is a tad absurd.

Both of Emerson's assertions are accompanied with citation notes, however I do not have access from the Wikipedia link to those citations, so I don't know what he's citing. For all I know, this is just a chain of assertions assuming connections because they seem obvious. I cannot know without further research into his sources. But this also showcases the limitations posed by linking a citation to something that is itself referencing another work, possibly incorrectly. Regardless of the veracity of Emerson's claim, the entire argument rests on the supposed link between "Zip a duden duden" and "Zip a dee doo dah." Is that case strong enough to warrant elimination of the song for historic racism?

The "Zip Coon" argument also glosses over the more obvious callback, the phrase "doo dah", which we can trace back at least as far as the refrain of Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races". While also originating as a minstrel song, "Camptown Races" has quickly fallen into the Great American Songbook divorced from any racial overtones and is frequently sung in programming for all ages, including for children. The basic simple tune is often a framework for any manner of fun lyrics with a "doo dah" refrain, as it's a tune that most everyone in America knows. It would not be out of the ordinary for someone to hum, "Gonna wash my car today, doo dah, doo dah..." Doubtless few who sing a "doo dah" refrain today are doing so with racist intent or overtone. The "doo dah" phrase is so endemic that it lived on in such things as the 1960s musical group The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

Nonsense phrases in historical context
Even assuming for the moment that the phrase does owe its origin to the "Zip Coon" song, one could make the case that the songwriter is being period accurate to the style of popular song. Song of the South is set during the Reconstruction Era of the late 19th Century, by which time popular folk tunes like "zip a duden duden" would be standard. So one could make the argument that using a similar phrase isn't necessarily racist in itself but simply an act of historically literate songwriting. But personally, I have a hard time even seeing the "zip a duden duden" chorus as racist in itself. Absolutely the "Zip Coon" song in its entirety has obvious racist undertones. But I have trouble seeing that refrain as particularly racist, especially since it doesn't seem to follow the typical "coon song" racial patois. And the clincher for me is that nonsense word choruses and refrains are a staple of folk music of this period.

For example, what the heck does it mean to sing "polly wolly doodle all the day"? "Polly Wolly Doodle" doesn't seem to carry any particular overtones. When we "deck the halls with boughs of holly," why do we also "fa la la la la"? And many Disney songs themselves from the 1930s and '40s before Song of the South contain nonsense lyrical refrains. We certainly don't hold any malicious intent behind "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Tra la la la la," or, "heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go," or "Hi-diddle-dee-dee, an actor's life for me". One could certainly see "Zip a dee doo dah" as following a tradition of nonsense syllables.

From nursery rhymes to folk music we find nonsense refrains, be they onomatopoeic (as in "Hey diddle diddle" presumably evoking the sawing of the cat's fiddle) or mere folderol. Indeed, that word folderol itself derives from such a nonsense refrain! Today, the dictionary defines folderol as "trivial or nonsensical fuss". But did you know "fol de rol" or "fal de ral" can be found in old Welsh folk music? Take for example the song "Dacw 'Nghariad", which follows each verse phrase with (and I'm anglicizing the spelling here), "Too rum di ro rum di raddle iddle al." The chorus is just a repeated "fal de raddle diddle al."

So we can see that there is a long history of musical nonsense syllables rounding out popular music for centuries, and in songs that do not involve black slavery at all. This tradition continued in popular music as well past the 1940s, with phrases like "sha na na", or "sh-boom" or Winnie-the-Pooh's "tiddly poms" (in the book) or "hum dum dee dum" (in the Disney cartoons). An entire genre of music came to be called "doo wop", and it would be foolish to assume that was a racist moniker attributed because many artists were black.

Conclusion
It therefore seems to me that a lot of fuss made about "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" is much ado about nothing. While there are certain racist associations with some similar phraseology, I don't believe the song's intent is to be racist, nor do I believe the average public holds such associations with the song itself, apart from it being tied to a film they have heard is racist. I contend that the presence of a similar silly refrain in a racist song is not proof that all similar nonsense lyrics are racist, as such refrains are a mainstay of popular music. And even if it were, time has long eroded away those associations to the point where kids today don't know anything about it. Indeed, the average American has never heard "Zip Coon" and would never think to associate the two.

"Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" is not only one of the most popular and enduring Disney songs, it won an Academy Award. We've already all but disavowed the existence of Song of the South as a film. James Baskett, the actor who played Uncle Remus and sang the song, was given a special Oscar for his portrayal. I think it does a great disservice to a great black actor and to this song to continue to sweep it under the rug. Let's not eliminate a delightful musical piece because someone things a four-syllable nonsense adjective is racist. It's a perfectly cromulent word.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Happy Juneteenth

The occasion of remembering slavery emancipation in this country made me want to trot out one of my old favorite hymns with a few renditions I found online.



Friday, April 10, 2020

Easter

"You now have sorrow, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you." - John 16:22





Thursday, March 19, 2020

EMMYS 1967: The Monkees (season 1)

NETWORK: NBC
SPONSORS: Kellogg's, Yardley

"We're the young generation, and we've got something to say."

Image result for the monkees season 1 opening

By the time of the 1966-67 season, television comedy was still continuing in the "lives of entertainers" milieu, but the show that won the Emmy this year was drastically different from the traditional formula of Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball. The youth culture was on the upswing, and television was no longer just following middle-aged folks and their work issues. It was the height of the Beatles' popularity at the point where they finally stopped touring. And it was a time of shakeup in film techniques and comedy. Popular music was a synthesis of folk, country, and rock and roll, with eastern influences just coming in. Annette Funicello was no longer the little girl in Mickey Mouse ears, but a teen idol doing beach movies. Into this cultural sea emerged a strange sort of parody/commentary on the times, The Monkees.

Conceived partially as an American response to The Beatles (but only partially), The Monkees was a series about a struggling fictional four-man teenage rock band as they tried to make it big and had wacky adventures in the meantime. Unlike long-take 3-camera sitcoms of the day, The Monkees was shot on film with lots of rapid cuts. People like to blame MTV for the shortened attention span of the young folks, but the rapid-fire editing was being done on The Monkees 15 years earlier. Heavily influenced by both the Richard Lester Beatles movies (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), as well as older comedy groups like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges (and I would argue a dash of the contemporary Beatles cartoon), The Monkees was a unique exploration in comedy that combined wordplay, parody, satire, slapstick, sight gags, onscreen text, improv, camera tricks, funny props, and just about anything you can think of into a wacky musical stew that somehow worked.

The four boys eventually cast would be Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork. Jones had been a child actor on the Broadway stage who played Artful Dodger in the original cast of Oliver! and had recently started his own music career. In fact, his debut album, David Jones, makes a brief appearance in one episode. Mickey Dolenz was also a former child actor, having starred in the TV series Circus Boy. Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith both came more out of the folk music scene, and Nesmith at the time was recording and performing under the pseudonym Michael Bessing. This strange assortment of performers with their variant personalities formed to create the personalities of the characters The Monkees who shared their names. The Monkees were never real... until they sort of were.

Like other Emmy-winning series we've looked at, there was a musical component to the show and every episode featured at least one song performed by the band. Many of the songs were written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, but other of their popular songs had writing credits from such names as Neil Diamond and Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Nesmith would contribute a few songs of his own in the first season as well. One was rejected as a Monkees tune, but Mike performs a quick version of it anyway on the show in one scene. That song, "Different Drum", would go on to be a success for The Stone Poneys and a young Linda Rondstadt. On most of the early recordings the songs are played by studio musicians and The Monkees only provide vocals (though the boys do play some instruments on a few tracks). When the songs started charting, an eventual backlash started that The Monkees were a phony band who didn't play their own stuff. The truth is complicated because yes, The Monkees are a fake band, a television fiction, but the members of the band are actual performers and musicians who absolutely can sing and play instruments. But once the group started releasing actual records, and then they started actually touring as a band, the lines got very muddy. The final episode of the first season is actually a sort of documentary following one tour stop for the band and showing them as a performing group. The line between the television personalities and the actual personalities of the boys is very strange here, but in a way it best captures the curious fiction and reality of The Monkees as a band.

The music in the show is good and has a definite sound of that era, particularly with a flavor of that sort of Beatles "Rubber Soul" sound, and other music circa 1965. The theme song is reminiscent ofTthe Dave Clark Five's "Catch Us If You Can". The musical sequences are often irrelevant to the plot, featuring lots of edits, strange locales, costumes, and gags. They are very much stylistically a bridge from the Beatles films to modern music videos. They are often a lot of fun.

The storylines themselves are also often ridiculous. For example, in order to make money the boys might find themselves working for an evil toy manufacturer. Or Davy might fall in love with some girl who is actually an heiress or princess. Or the boys might find themselves in the middle of a haunted house or ghost town. It has the real flavor of a cartoon or the old 1930s serials where characters might just show up in random places.

But unique here is that the Monkees all live together in one beach-front apartment with no adult supervision. Apart from a manager character in the pilot episode, the Monkees are their own men. They live by themselves, take care of their own lives, and try to deal with the hassle of adults who want the rent, won't give them jobs, won't let them date. They are a kind of ultimate fantasy for their teenage audience. They aren't beholden to an adult; they make group decisions and Mike is the de facto leader. They are also not wealthy superstars. They just want to have fun and make a living. On their wall is a framed embroidery reminding that "Money is the root of all evil". They aren't the Beatles; but they would like to be. They are sweet guys who want to help people in trouble. It's very much a show about the youth of America and for them.

And it's funny! Because the humor is so varied in style, there's always something to laugh about. The one bit that cracked me up so much this time around is when they are throwing a party and just randomly at one point Mr. Clean walks in and starts washing the windows. It's never commented on, he just shows up.
 Image result for monkees mr clean
It's so bizarre and random and ridiculous, but that's what you get with this show. An episode might end in a sword fight, or a character might break the fourth wall and walk off backstage to check the script. There's a magical sense of realism where they will suddenly be in different outfits just for a bit. Peter might be able to shoot a man with his finger, or Mike might talk a computer into self-destructing. There's one episode that features a prolonged parody of the Adam West Batman series. And a lot of personality, dialogue, or character comes out of improvisation. That kind of energy really keeps the show alive and sets it apart from other shows of that time.

One negative about the music in the show though is that the same song tended to be used a lot for a block of shows, so if you watch a lot in a row, you'll hear "Last Train to Clarksville" in five episodes in a row, and then never again. I suppose it's due to not having many songs recorded early on, but it would have served the series better to have banked at least 10 songs before shooting. Once the hit single comes out, you hear it in a number of shows. But I suppose this would be less of a problem watching it week to week, especially if you tuned in because you hoped to hear "I'm a Believer" again. In later syndicated reruns, sometimes some songs were swapped out for others.

When I was a kid, this was briefly run on Nick at Nite for one summer. I remember at the time my favorite was Peter, but watching it again now I really connect to Mike. Mike always wears a wool hat on the show. Why? Because Mike wore it to the audition and somehow it stood out so much to producers that they thought of him as the "wool hat guy". In several early episodes, they even call him Woolhat. This sort of became an annoyance to Nesmith. In looking back, Nesmith seems like the George Harrison of the group. He has a different energy, but he's got a lot of talent and by his own admission he didn't always understand what was happening here. But he's a bit of special sauce for the show because even if he's not the teen heartthrob or the one doing as many wacky voices, or the lovable idiot, he's got a folksy playful sense and contributes a lot to the music of the show.

It's also interesting that they let a shorter man like Davy Jones be essentially the "cute one" in the group. Funny to think about, but usually the girls are falling for Davy in episodes and in a culture where there's often an expectation that the boy be taller than the girl, it's nice that it plays out that way. Not that they don't address his height; they do, and sometimes with good-natured teasing, but all in good fun and never mean-spirited.

At the end of some episodes that come up short, there would be improvised interview segments between creator Bob Rafelson and the band. The boys would sometimes drop character a little bit in these segments, and the audience could get to know a little bit about who these guys are. Sometimes they were just playing around and giving joke answers, like the Beatles or Bob Dylan would do in interviews, but at other times things might creep a tad into the serious. There was one particular episode where they were discussing youth demonstrations or riots that were in the news of the day. And these young men just shared their honest opinions about it. That sort of encapsulates the new sense of the late 1960s that The Monkees as a show was presenting; they times they were a-changin'.

Of course, it was the 1960s, and some of the content is something you couldn't really do today with modern sensibilities. The biggest offender is "Monkee Chow Mein" in which the a Chinese restaurant is actually a front for nefarious foreign spies. Though Asian actors are used as background characters, the leads are white men in broad yellowface makeup doing stereotypical "so solly" accents. It's a shame this puts such a sour taste in the mouth today, because the episode is basically a riff on contemporary comedy series Get Smart (which would win the Emmy the following year).  The gypsy episode also wouldn't fare too well today. Another mark of how times have changed is in NBC's censorship of "Davey and Fern". In this episode, the Fern character appears in one scene in a bikini and NBC must have found it too revealing because they smear every shot where you can see anything below the shoulders in a blur effect. This was back when Barbara Eden wasn't allowed to show her bellybutton on I Dream of Jeannie, but it's weird seeing a character's torso randomly obscured by what looks like vaseline all over the lens.

Winning the Emmy Award for Comedy Series over standbys like The Andy Griffith Show or new fare like Bewitched shows that the time was right for new comedy, that ostensibly a children's show could be taken seriously for doing something so different and yet contemporary. They also won an Emmy for Best Directing. But apart from awards, perhaps the best praise the show could get is that apparently John Lennon watched and was a fan. The final moments of the first season are Mike Nesmith at radio microphone, after The Monkees had "taken over" a local radio station during their tour, thanking various groups and performers who they like, ending with "We'd like to thank The Beatles for getting this whole thing started." That about sums it up, Mike.

FAVORITE EPISODES: Royal Flush; Monkee See, Monkey Die; Monkee vs Machine; The Chaperone; I've Got a Little Song Here; Davy and Fern; I Was a Teenage Monster; Find the Monkees; Monkees a la Mode; Monkees at the Movies

UP NEXT: Get Smart