Monday, February 20, 2012

The hits keep coming on Antenna TV

One of the results of the recent switch from analog to digital broadcasting is the glut of channels now available even to viewers like me who continue to resist cable and other pay TV options. I now have two channel 3s, one of which shows nothing but a weather map 24 hours a day. There are two and sometimes three of most channels now. Fans of Ernest Angley can get their fill of his sermons on channel 55.2 which presents repeat broadcasts of The Ernest Angley Hour and The Ninety and Nine Club, both of which also air on 55.1. Devotees of public television have benefited the most. In addition to the PBS programming on channel 25, there’s coverage of the Ohio Senate on 25.2, repeats of PBS shows on 25.3 and 25.4 and audio programs, some from the local NPR station, on 25.9.

Then there’s 43.2 which presents old movies and TV series from the MGM library courtesy of the This network which specifically caters to the substations that have popped up in the last year or so. Antenna TV, a similar network that premiered in my area on New Year’s Eve 2010, is a feast of nostalgia for lovers of TV’s past. In addition to airing genuine classics like All in the Family and Maude, they are digging deep into the Sony-owned archives of Screen Gems, the name given to the television subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, for such two-season wonders as The Flying Nun and The Monkees, both of which could provide a wake-up call to those who think current television is not up the standards of previous decades.
Much of television was truly abysmal in the mid-1960s, the era for which The Flying Nun and The Monkees are fairly typical representatives. For Sally Field, The Flying Nun must be an embarrassment that can only be relieved by hugging those two Oscars she won for best actress for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart. In what kind of imagination could such a show originate? Set in Puerto Rico, The Flying Nun cast Field as Sister Bertrille whose small 90 pound frame just happens to take flight whenever a strong wind blows. Her ability to float through the air was not integral to the plots of the two episodes I saw recently. It’s simply some weird little gimmick to the story. Was it the sudden and quite unexpected popularity of the Batman TV show that made the producers give a sort of superpower to a nun? The Catholic church actually gave its blessing to the show which really should be buried somewhere in the vast catacombs where the Vatican stores its dead popes.
The Flying Nun had stories. The Monkees merely used bare-bones plots in which to insert musical numbers, many of which were repeated week after week, presumably to promote whatever single was currently riding high on the charts. If you can get into the spirit of the proceedings, the shows are pretty entertaining, owing much of their appeal to the charms of its lead players. In one episode, the Monkees devise bizarre ways to teach American History to a girl who can’t concentrate on her college exams because she’s in love with Davy Jones, the one English member of the American group. In another segment, comedy legend Stan Freberg appears as the employee of a toy company where the boys work to pay the rent on the apartment they all share.

The Monkees were created to capitalize on the success of the Beatles, and the show took the casual style of 1964's A Hard Day’s Night as its inspiration. It proved to be a winning formula commercially. Although the sitcom, which aired Monday nights on NBC in the 7:30 - 8:00 p.m. time slot from 1966-68, was never a top ten hit, the Monkees became a phenomenon of sorts, scoring hit singles and selling more albums than the Beatles during their brief time at the top. In 1967, the year in which the Fab Four’s groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper was the tenth biggest selling album according to Billboard, the Monkees’ debut album and its follow-up held down the top two spots. Within a year of that achievement, however, the Monkees were pretty much finished. Head, their oddball big-screen debut (with a script by Jack Nicholson) that met with audience indifference, was also their swan song, at least until their '80's comeback with the hit, "That Was Then, This Is Now," and the ongoing reunion tours.

Once the show was cancelled and the hit records stopped coming, the Monkees were regarded as a joke, a blatantly commercial enterprise whose records were created by session musicians from songs by the likes of Neil Diamond, Carole King, and the duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. It was a time when rock bands, following the example set by Bob Dylan and Lennon-McCartney, were expected to write their own songs, and certainly play their own instruments. The Monkees did neither. Two of its members, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, were musicians, folk artists who played the local clubs around L.A. before answering an ad to audition for the group. But Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz, who alternated lead vocals on most of their hits, were actors who would continue to pop up on TV occasionally in the years to come.

I don’t know what became of Tork in the years that followed, but Nesmith scored a solo hit with a lovely self-penned country ballad, “Joanne,” in 1970 before becoming a pioneer of music video with the Grammy winning Elephant Parts. He hasn’t done too badly, and presumably can thank his mother for his financial independence. She invented Liquid Paper, the correction fluid particularly popular in the pre-computer age.

Despite their purely calculated success, the Monkees did produce two classic singles which, coincidentally, share a word in the title: “I’m a Believer,” written by Neil Diamond, was their biggest hit and a song that’s been revived several times, most recently by Diamond himself on an album titled Dreams. Then there’s “Daydream Believer,” a John Stewart composition that provided the Monkees with their last number one hit. It’s a great song and a just about perfect recording whose fans include actor Johnny Depp and punk-poetess Patti Smith.

It’s not a bad legacy for a pop group conceived for a dumb sitcom. If nothing else, the Monkees can boast of having flown higher than The Flying Nun.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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