Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Monkees as a band by counting down our top 50 Monkees songs. Now, we’re celebrating The Monkees TV show by profiling each and every episode — exactly 50 years after it first premiered.
Tonight’s episode: “The Devil and Peter Tork” (Season 2, Episode 20)
Air date: February 5, 1968
In my early days of my Monkees obsession, I thought I knew them, and that I couldn’t love them any more than I already did. Then, during a rerun on The Antenna Network, “The Devil and Peter Tork” came into my life, and my perception of the Monkees changed yet again. The first time I watched this episode was pivotal to my understanding of the band and the vigorous fandom that surrounds them, even 50 years after their debut.
In a way, the Monkees were a crass experiment to popularize on the success of The Beatles by a very smart entertainment industry think-tank. The TV show was supposed to function as a delivery system for the countless records, dolls, clothing items and other merchandise crudely stamped with the pre-fab four’s cute mugs. However, there was a spirit behind the TV show and the music itself that transcended the purposes that it was created for. That is what makes the Monkees so fascinating: the moments where the songs on their albums or the episodes of the TV show were so good, beyond the confines of the era and the project.
“The Devil and Peter Tork” is an excellent example of this Monkees paradigm shift. There are certainly other funny and poignant episodes of the show, as have been chronicled in our recaps. And “The Devil and Peter Tork” isn’t exactly the funniest episode of the series. In fact, a lot of the jokes in this one fall flat 50 years later, especially during the courtroom sequence during its final act. However, one could argue, “The Devil and Peter Tork” is the most poignant Monkees episode of all time.
We open on Peter Tork, (in the most gentle performance, I would argue, of his career) wandering into the pawn shop of Mr. Zero (a perfect Monty Landis). Tork sees a beautiful harp and inadvertently signs away his soul to take the harp home. When the rest of the Monkees object to the harp taking up space in their pad, they realize that not only has Peter signed away his soul, he’s also gained the ability to play the harp beautifully. It’s worth noting that although Tork is an accomplished musician in his own right, he mimes playing the harp for this episode. Peter’s newfound skills give the Monkees the fame and fortune they’ve been craving during the entire series when Mr. Zero returns to collect on their bargain.
A sexy romp with some devil girls in hell commences, all to the Nesmith-sung “Salesman,” from the recently released Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones LTD. This song, penned by composer Craig Smith, is about a drug dealer, but could surely be about the devil himself.
We then are taken back to the pad, in which the Monkees clearly say mouth the word “hell” on network TV five times, all the while we hear the noise of a coo-coo bird over the top of their naughty words. This sequence caused much ire for the network censors and is what prompted NBC to delay the airing of this episode, although it was filmed earlier on in the season. It’s lucky that NBC didn’t shelve it altogether. There’s a gutsiness and subversiveness to this gag that really reads here.
In fact, you can tell that the Monkees and director Jim Frawley knew they were pulling off something special with “The Devil and Peter Tork.” All of their performances have a gravitas not seen in the rest of the series. It feels like the boys are all really looking out for each other here. I think we’re picking up on the vibe that was happening off-camera. The Monkees had recently finished their rebellion against their music supervisor, Don Kirsher and had recorded Headquarters: an album that they played every single note on in between the grueling shooting schedule of their series. This impressive feat bonded the four young Monkees in ways that we outsider-fans can only imagine. The Monkees’ love for each other is palpable here.
This feeling could not be more prevalent than at the end of the episode. After a strange trial for Peter’s soul featuring historical witnesses from different eras and juried by a rough looking group of convicts (these are the gags here that I feel are the weakest in the episode), one Robert Michael Nesmith delivers what is the most stunning speech in the history of the series.
Mr. Zero claims that the only reason that Peter can play the harp is his devilish manipulations. Mike has this folksy and bold retort that never fails to bring a tear to my eye:
“No, you didn’t give him the ability to play the harp. You see… you see, Peter loved the harp. And he loved, he loved the music that came from the harp. And that was inside of him. And, eh, it came, uhm, it was… the power of that love was inside of Peter, eh, it was inside of him from the first. And it was that kind of power, that made Peter able to play the harp. And, eh, you didn’t have anything to do with it at all… And if you love music, than you can play music. And all it takes is just love, because eh, because baby, in the final analysis, love is power. That’s where the power’s at!”
If you think about the reverberations the Sixties youth movement: the political strife, families torn apart and needless death that propelled this country into the Seventies and beyond, and you look at the Monkees, which at best were a cuddly, stoned-out mirror of their surroundings, you wouldn’t believe that such a smart summation of the sentiments of the era would be contained in the show. But there it is: “In the final analysis love is power. That’s where the power’s at.”
Love is power.
I don’t know if there’s a better distillation of what the era was all about or the reasons why members of future generations like myself are still fascinated by it. And there it was, at the tail end of a goofy Monkees episode for the nation to be witnessing through their TV sets while eating their compartmentalized TV dinners. Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, here in status symbol land, indeed.
After Mike’s speech, Peter walks over to the harp and proves that the music was in him all along by playing a lovely rendition of “I Want to Be Free.” It brings the jury to tears, and he is exonerated. The Monkees celebrate. They sing and dance and romp. Peter’s soul is saved. And maybe, in some weird way as only the Monkees can do, our souls are too in the process.
“The Devil and Peter Tork” ends with a music video for the Monkees’ song “No Time.” It’s goofy and wonderful and could not be a better ending to my favorite episode.