DVD Review: The Monkees, Seasons One and Two

For the first time in over 10 years, the entire Monkees TV series is available on DVD.
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Monkees fans, rejoice: at last, all original episodes are now available on DVD, in two separate boxed sets The Monkees(Seasons One and Two). This Eagle Rock release marks the first time in over ten years that both seasons have been issued on DVD.

To this day, The Monkees are often called the "Pre-Fab Four," a fake band that at first did not play their own instruments. However, as the series continued, the four actors/musicians evolved into a full-fledged group, writing their own material and producing some underrated rock classics such as Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., and Head. All of these albums contain quality garage rock and solid 60s psychedelia. Even the biggest skeptics can hardly deny the appeal of the excellent pop singles "Last Train to Clarksville," "Daydream Believer," "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone," and "Pleasant Valley Sunday," among many others. The group also furthered Michael Nesmith's career; the budding singer/songwriter penned some of the Monkees' most memorable hits with his offbeat, country-inflected music and lyrics. Micky Dolenz also proved to be a distinctive rock vocalist, singing lead on some of their most well-known singles ("For Pete's Sake," "Randy Scouse Git") and hidden gems ("Words," "Mary Mary," "Goin' Down").

Those like me who grew up on the reruns will find many surprises on these discs. All of the original romps have been restored—for example, during Episode 13, "One Man Shy (Peter and the Debutante)," Peter Tork comically tries to woo an upper-class girl to the strains of Headquarters' "Forget that Girl," in the rerun version. But the original 1996 broadcast actually included "I'm A Believer." A pleasant surprise is how the pilot episode, "Here Come the Monkees," has been digitally restored. TV viewers may remember footage appearing so dark and grainy that it was difficult to actually see the action. On the DVD, the pilot has a previously undetectable clarity and vibrancy in color. More restoration could have been done on the sound quality—at times the volume fluctuates, and the the sound remains murky on Episode Five, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cool."

Special features include commentary by all the Monkees and original episode directors; unfortunately, the band members' recollections do not prove all that interesting. During one show, Nesmith recalls the cars he owned more than the actual shooting of the show! Davy Jones does provide some insights, however, particularly noting that The Monkees often cast their friends in small roles. Other features include jumping straight to the romps; trivia on each episode (larger type would have made for easier reading); commercials they shot for Kelloggs; and on the Season Two set, the rare 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee special, the last time all four appeared together on screen.

Watching episodes back-to-back, one notices how often the show's creators recycled certain footage—both stock and originally filmed with the band—in various romps. In addition, the fast editing and absurd cuts (actors popping in and out of frame, seemingly in two places at once) derive directly from director Richard Lester's Beatles films A Hard Day's Night and Help!, setting the stage for modern music videos. While the plots may seem corny today, the constant winking at the audience and the actors' addressing the camera directly parody the corniness. The four men give the appearance that they know they are in a TV show, and that even they find the stories and cliches ridiculous. Perhaps the best example of this convention lies in "Dance, Monkee, Dance," when Dolenz strides off the set, enters the "writers' room," and directs the Japanese-looking team to come up with a solution for The Monkees' latest dilemma. They type away on their typewriters and present Dolenz with a script; he returns to the beach-side house set, then rips up the pages, exclaiming "man, those guys are really overpaid!"

Comparing Season Two to Season One, The Monkees seemed even more skeptical of TV conventions, often undermining the plot with sarcastic comments and evident displeasure with the typical Monkees plots (dressing in drag, Davy falling in love, Peter acting dumb, and more). Unlike the first season, these episodes integrated psychedelic elements and seemed less innocent than the carefree attitude of season one. Although even Nesmith admits in commentary that season one holds up better, there were some highlights: "The Christmas Show," featuring the four crooning in perfect harmony to the Christmas carol "Riu Riu"; "The Devil and Peter Tork," where Tork seemingly sells his soul to the devil for more musical talent; and "Monkee Mayor," where Nesmith runs for local mayor while trying to maintain his integrity. Another pleasant surprise is the eclectic guest stars, some already famous, some rising stars. The roster includes Vic Tayback (aka Mel from Alice), Vincent Gardenia, Rose Marie, Stan Freberg, Julie Newmar, Pat Paulsen, and, bizarrely, Frank Zappa.

Despite continued criticism, The Monkees' music and TV show live on due to their charm, quality songs, and innovative editing techniques. Monkees fans should definitely invest in the two DVD boxed sets, and rock enthusiasts will enjoy revisiting the terrific music written by such luminaries as Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Harry Nilsson, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, David Gates (Bread), Neil Sedaka, Carole Bayer Sager, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and the Monkees themselves. Memorable songs, the Monkees' comedic gifts, speed-defying edits, and the show's importance in music video history make The Monkees: Season One and Season Two DVDs essential viewing.