Friday, March 2, 2012

Davy Jones and the birth of "reality" TV

The death of Davy Jones this week got me thinking about my own mortality -- that happens, whenever anyone less than 10 years older than you joins the choir invisible -- and the Monkees, who were delightful or idiotic, depending on how old you were when they made their televised debut in 1966. (I was about to turn 12, so...delightful.)

Their true legacy isn't the long roster of hits on my two-CD collection, including the immortal "Daydream Believer" and "I'm a Believer." It's the long, undistinguished history of "reality" television which, as far as I can see, starts with them.

Bob Rafelson, who later became the Oscar-nominated writer-director of "Five Easy Pieces," and Bert Schneider were inspired by the success of the movie "A Hard Day's Night," in which the Beatles played characters based on themselves. They wanted to build a TV series around the Lovin' Spoonful, whose label wouldn't let them take part. So they auditioned for new band members.

Like the Beatles, the Monkees got their name by misspelling an animal and consisted of a cute lead singer, a snarky intellectual guitar player, a goofy drummer and a shy guy lost in the shadows. They used their own names for the characters, sang their own songs on the show and acted out exaggerated moments from entertainers' lives such as theirs.

Sure, the episodes were scripted. (So are modern reality shows, to some extent.) Yes, the characters  lacked the mean-spiritedness, vulgarity and obnoxious self-promotion of people on "The Bachelor" or "Jersey Shore." But in some way, the poisonous inanity that has swept across modern TV has its roots in the innocent "true-life" shenanigans of "The Monkees."