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: “It’s a Nice Place to Visit” (Season 2, Episode 1)
Air date: September 11, 1967
By the time the second season of The Monkees kicked off on September 11, 1967, a lot had changed since season one wrapped in April. Some might say everything changed.
The summer of ’67 was truly a golden period for not just the Monkees, but for the ’60s and everything that meant and means. Our four boys experienced the height of Monkeemania at home and abroad on an international tour. Their album, Headquarters, released just after the first season ended, spent the summer chasing the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band up the charts. And, in the midst of adoration and commercial validation, the series won two Emmys: one for director James Frawley, along with the prestigious award for Outstanding Comedy Series.
As the fall of ’67 rolled around, however, cracks were beginning to show. Really, the process began when the four actors hired to play a band on television insisted on taking over the reins in the recording studio. (The result, Headquarters, is probably one of their most revered works, although, at the time, many a teeny-bopping fan had no idea what to make of it.)
Their next album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, LTD., well underway by the time The Monkees‘ second season premiered, would also be largely self-produced, but that ambition, too, would end up collapsing on subsequent albums, though one or more of the Monkees would usually have a hand or two in music production.
Everyone wondered how long it would last. Even Michael Nesmith, giving an interview to British reporter Keith Altham, predicted that the whole thing would be over by the end of the year, saying that the experience was aging them all — even the “cherubic” Davy Jones. But even he had begun to envision the show’s destiny as a “classic.”
Which makes the roller-coaster ride of season two — vacillating from the bizarre, to the nonsensical, to the trippy, to the weirdly normal — all the more puzzling. As we’ll see, the episodes range from instant favorites to forgettable embarrassments and everything in between.
The season’s premiere, “It’s a Nice Place to Visit,” directed by Frawley and written by Monkees veteran Treva Silverman, finds the four Monkees stranded in Mexico; their car — the intrepid Monkeemobile, now with door decals! — is broken down and, while they wait for a mechanic to take a look, they stumble into the El Monotono Cantina.
In the cold open, it’s obvious that these aren’t the same guys we remember from season one: they’re far less clean-cut (Nesmith’s hair is long, his sideburns unruly; Micky’s hair is in that weird, in-between-curly-and-straight, slicked-back style) and the tone of their delivery and schtick has a subtle but undefinable sneer to it, even with straight dialogue.
In the cantina, the most predictable of Monkees tropes is trotted out: Davy falls in love with Angelita (Cynthia Hull), the pretty waitress. “Angelita,” he says, “that means little angel.” And it begins…
Like most young ladies falling in love with Davy at first sight, however, Angelita has two domineering patriarchs putting the kibosh on their romance: her father (uncle? grandfather?) and El Diablo (Peter Whitney), a Mexican gangster who’s big, burly, imposing, angry, and ready to rumble. He and Angelita are a thing, even though she’s not into it, and, for the moment, Davy seems complacent to say goodbye to her and get out of town with his bandmates.
The mechanic quotes an exorbitant fee to fix the car: $14.95. They, of course, don’t have that much dough, so they take a job performing in the cantina and quickly make the money. Unfortunately, Davy spots Angelita and, although he means to simply say goodbye once again, can’t help kissing her. El Diablo chooses that exact moment to burst into the cafe, and when he sees Davy and Angelita making out, he and his banditos kidnap Davy.
Micky, Peter, and Mike — after having unsuccessfully tried to rally the troops at the cantina to go save Davy — do the next logical thing and dress up as banditos themselves to try and infiltrate El Diablo’s gang and find Davy. Like “Monkees Chow Mein” before it, there are ethnic and racial stereotypes abounding in this episode, with white actors playing POC roles in something akin to blackface complete with bad accents. But, for the sake of the episode (and this recap), we’ll just make it clear that that’s not cool at all and get on with the show.
Because the three Monkees are super unconvincing, they, too, are captured and taken to El Diablo where they introduce themselves as El Nesmito, the bandit without a conscience; El Dolenzio, the bandit without a heart; and El Torko, the bandit without a nickname. They suggest joining forces with El Diablo’s contingent, but he’s not buying it. In order to prove their loyalty, he puts them through a series of test. No, not killing people and pillaging towns, but arm wrestling, cards, and a knife fight involving some rope? I don’t know.
Having proven themselves to El Diablo, he invites the Monkees to celebrate with a feast and wine. Because they’re Good Boys, the Monkees don’t drink and instead toss the wine over their shoulder, although it does prove a convenient alibi for Peter to sneak away to look for Davy. He runs into a guard and describes the party a short distance away, but the language barrier is problematic, so Peter boils it down to the important point: “booze.” The guard scampers away and Peter and Davy are joyfully reunited, and Peter sets about trying to untie his comrade.
Back at the party, Micky and Mike get a bit concerned when Peter’s gone for awhile and feign having drunk too much to go look for him. They find Peter still trying to untie Davy, who cheekily reaches up and draws a figure eight in the air. (Though this type of gag did and would fly in season one, the prevalence of these “in on the joke” gags would become a hallmark of season-two episodes.)
Micky and Mike find their two bandmates and the Monkees high-tail it back to the car, pay the mysterious $.50 parking fee, and skedaddle. But their car troubles aren’t over, and they run out of gas just in time for El Diablo and his men to catch up with them. Singling Micky out as their leader, El Diablo challenges him, via a messenger, to a duel at high noon, having figured out that these banditos are nothing more than musicians.
Micky, understandably, is reluctant, but Angelita insists that El Diablo will punish the entire town if the two don’t duel. (“Baby,” Micky responds, “if I don’t leave, he’s gonna punish my entire body!”) Nevertheless, he dons his hero-whites and prepares to meet El Diablo for their duel.
The two face each other as the clock strikes noon, and El Diablo begins shooting. In real life, Micky probably would have been toast, but instead, the Monkee taunts him after he misses him despite his volley of gunfire.
Cue the first and only romp of the episode; starting with “A Nice Place to Visit,” gone are the many-song episodes. Instead, all future episodes only feature one or two numbers. Tonight’s includes one, Nesmith’s “What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ Round,” which appears twice: first, as a performance number at the cantina (in a terribly interspersed video clip that will show up again) and during this romp.
As the song plays, the Monkees work to tie up the bandits, restore peace to the town, and, of course, Davy gets the girl in the end. Then the episode ends kind of abruptly without the nice, little summation that a lot of the early episodes have, but without any loose ends to tie up, closing with a great Monkees tune isn’t a bad way to go out.
If it weren’t immediately obvious to the average home viewer in 1967 that the four Monkees, and the content of their television show, were changing, the tune over the closing credits would have been the ultimate tip-off. The Peter Tork-penned “For Pete’s Sake” replaced the reprise of their theme song, and its “peace, love, brown rice, waterbeds” lyrics indicated exactly what the young generation had to say. Its message of being free and loving one another encapsulated in this call to action surely turned off a faction of the Monkees viewers who enjoyed the comedy and, yes, the music, too.
More than that, it was a blatant sign that the four actors had become self-aware and realized the leverage and power their platform afforded. With such promise capped off by an Emmy win, the show was ostensibly poised for a long run and great success, despite the hectic pace and Nesmith’s allusion to burnout. The Monkees, now a bonafide real band, probably inspired the most devoted fervor in 1967, next to the Beatles, and the highly anticipated premiere of their show’s second season should have signaled the beginning of a new, prosperous chapter for both the band and show.
Instead, it was the beginning of the end. Their second season was their last.