Under the Eye: “Faithful”

“Faithful”

Don’t we know enough by now to know that the actions of our past have no bearing on what we truly are in the present? Regret is the kindest of emotions, and where regret cannot be cataloged or prioritized, reason fills that gap. Aristotle spoke of “reason.” That the concept of Reason is what makes man good. The group-think mob control philosophy of 2018 removes the concept of Reason from Man, therefore all men are unreasonable, therefore all men are “evil.” Of course, the concept of Reason still exists, we know this. Law is put into place to create guidelines for Reason. You remove the law, there is no reason. You search for short-cuts in the Law, you are bending Reason. What occurs in The Handmaid’s Tale is the absence of reason vis-à-vis rewriting the laws, and it proves (with logic) such a scenario could never exist in the United States nor the “Republic of Gilead.” After a particularly stimulating game of Scrabble, the Commander (obviously charmed by a flirtatious June) gives her a gift: an old fashion magazine. Is the Commander violating the decree of Gilead by acknowledging June’s ability to read? We flash back to the day June met Luke. It’s almost a meet-cute from a romantic comedy. It turns out Luke is married. This is where we get the “adulterer” moniker from Aunt Lydia. Gilead’s record-keepers must be former Scientologists! While June eats her breakfast cereal, Nick walks in and they make eyes.

“Hey, I just met you. And this is crazy. But here’s my number. So call me, maybe?”

Serena infers to June that if she won’t get pregnant soon, she’ll be sent off to the dreaded Colonies. Serena has an idea (straight out of the book) to put her together with a stud who will knock her up but good, while still going through the motions during the rape. She chooses Nick because we have to get these two together, right? So now we have a complete and total lie, with no element of this family (Fred and Serena) contributing in any way to the creation of a child. In the Loaves & Fishes supermarket scene, I begin to understand the purpose of the over-sized hoods the handmaids wear. They allow for no peripheral vision so that a handmaid must turn to face you in order to see you, like the blinders on horses. After having her clitoris removed, Emily is put back into the general population, given the new designation “Ofsteven.” She tells June of “Mayday,” perhaps a resistance group, which gets my blood a-pumpin’. June’s new traveling companion is a bitchy little thing who doesn’t want to get into trouble. Later, Serena plays Juliet’s Nurse to June and Nick, arranging for their quiet time in his Fonzie-style above-the-garage-apartment. June thinks about her courtship with Luke. Luke is light-skinned, bearded with glasses. He looks like a Liberal Arts professor. Moss appears much more genuine as a real person in these flashback scenes than she does as the withered wall-flower of a handmaid getting into Nick’s pants. Nick, the well-meaning slug, has no problem with the arrangement, nor should he.

“I am the drudge and toil in your delight, but you shall bear the burden soon at night.”

Frankly, I have no problem with June’s “scarlet letter” status, and as June sees no problem with it (even to the destruction of Luke’s marriage), why is her past used as ammunition by the elite of Gilead? In the present, Serena observes (or stands watch) as June and Nick make it. The interaction is mechanical, bereft of passion, and when it is over Serena asks her how she feels. June, in a rare outburst, says, “You don’t just feel pregnant thirty seconds after a man comes.” Serena tells her to lie down. We’re back to Reason, or the bending of reason in search of short-cuts. Serena really wants to have a baby, and she’s willing to bend the rules, even if it is not her baby. Somebody else bends the rules; the wife of Emily’s new Commander. She’s well aware of what Emily has gone through, and she postpones the Ceremony. Kindness is at such a premium on this show it shocks me when I see it. Since sex is strictly for procreation (and never to be enjoyed), Commander Fred commits a major boo-boo when he touches June’s thigh during the Ceremony. Oops! Later, she and Fred debate the finer points of choice and love. Fred doesn’t believe in love – he sees it as a mask for lust. Perhaps because he’s never truly known love. “I only wanted to make the world better,” he almost pleads to June. He’s a wicked little thing. “Better never means better for everyone.” June vomits after hearing this. Why is Gilead’s water pressure better than my old house upstate?

“Stupid is as stupid does.”

In a flashback, June tells Luke she wants him to leave his wife, to which Luke quickly agrees. I realize the responsibility of the infidelity rests firmly on the both of their shoulders, but married Luke stands to lose more in this coupling than single June. She might be the seductress, the succubus of this lust story, but it was Luke’s choice to remove his pants. When the Sons of Jacob seize the power, they become the father-image and treat the citizens like children, but making them responsible for their actions, and then controlling them through those actions. In town, Emily (Ofsteven) gets into a car and starts driving. You see, women aren’t allowed to drive cars. She runs over a Guardian, probably kills him right there, but the actress Bledel has a look of bewilderment on her face, as if she doesn’t know what she is doing, but as Aunt Lydia likes to say, “Actions have consequences.” I really don’t care about the soap opera aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. These characters haven’t been around long enough for me to care. When June later sees Nick in his Fonzie-style apartment and they make love like actual human beings, I really don’t care. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how people can be turned on enough in this grotesque imitation of life to have hot, sweaty passionate sex. Maybe it goes back to June’s status as an “adulterer.” If that’s the case, The Handmaid’s Tale is a prudish, judgmental piece of tripe.

Under the Eye: “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”

“Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum”

The writers of the show continue to remind us there was a different world before the takeover and, consequently, we’re fed unreliable narration from June that signals to us Gilead has been around either for five years or forever. June, Luke, and Hannah visit a carnival and “Daydream Believer” plays in an unsettling echo. June is being punished for not being pregnant. Perhaps Serena believes June has the awesome, unimaginable power of shutting off any potential pregnancy at the snap of a finger. Given what we eventually learn about Serena, I don’t think that’s the case. The crime, in my view, was of getting her hopes up and delivering nothing. It’s a lot like the narrative structure of The Handmaid’s Tale: weeks of promises and no pay-off. Last week’s “Late” was a better episode than it ever deserved to be, and that’s because there were some delicious morsels of back-story, even though much of it made no sense. We got our dessert first, but now with “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum,” we have to eat our undercooked brussels sprouts and lima beans, and damn but this is undercooked! June finds some writing on the wall inside the closet: the title of the episode. Latin. A dead language perfect for a dying culture. Another flashback takes us back to the handmaid orientation facility with Moira etching graffiti into a bathroom wall – her idea of resistance. This is another one of those annoying Lost-style flashbacks.

“Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.”

Rita freaks out when she sees June passed out on the floor, and Serena arranges for a visit to the hospital. June remembers being taught the Ceremony. There is an inconsistency with Janine’s character here. She is already the flighty weirdo she would eventually become after being broken, but a couple of episodes later after giving birth, she is her old self: defiant and saucy. June waits in the hospital. I feel bad for these Guardians who wanted to crush skulls but find the only job they can get is receptionist. Something extraordinary happens. Her doctor gives her a check-up, tells her she’s perfectly healthy, but then lets slip that the men are sterile, and she’ll probably never have a child by Fred. The doctor then offers his services, if you know what I mean. She politely turns him down. Back to the carnival and fun times! Again, why aren’t we packing up the car and getting the fuck out of Dodge? “Are you dying,” Serena asks, unconcerned and only worried June’s condition will delay this night’s Ceremony. Offred begs to be let out of her room. Serena ain’t having it. In a flashback, Moira and June attack one of their Aunts (unfortunately not Lydia), steal her clothes and make for the trains. It’s interesting to me how frightened this particular Aunt is, knowing the weight and gravitas these creatures carry within them. Before the Ceremony, Fred offers Offred a Scrabble re-match. During the Ceremony, Fred can’t seem to achieve an erection. He tries to jerk off and then he just walks away. Serena offers to help, but it ain’t happening.

Cue “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye.

In flashback, Moira and June make it to the train station, but are then separated and it appears Moira successfully escapes, whereas June is caught and punished. Do you think the Sons of Jacob sit around and come up with ways to torture women? It seems more thought is put into brutalizing women and burning away the last vestiges of the past than infrastructure and resources. I don’t see how everybody can laud June for being such a “strong female character.” She’s not strong. She’s vulnerable, needy. She’s not particularly bright. She has no sense of smell for the incredible opportunities that are practically handed to her. Maybe that’s my frustration right there: in those strange, sunken spring-green eyes that scream, “help me,” but then sink into the shadows because she can’t find her inner-hero. Five years of Gilead is five years too long. During the Scrabble game, June wonders about the previous handmaid while flashing back to her punishment. Aunt Lydia seems to know of June’s past. June is an adulterer. Her feet are whipped. In the present, she asks Fred about the meaning of “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.” He tells her it’s a joke. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” She asks Fred what happened to the previous Offred. Fred tells her she killed herself, hung herself from the ceiling of her room. Oddly, she found her life unbearable. Imagine that! For some reason, this empowers June. She uses this new information to manipulate Fred into letting her out of her room. The episode ends on a sick joke of June strutting with confidence along with other handmaids and proclaiming in voice-over, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum, Bitches.” This episode made me sick to my stomach.

Under the Eye: “Late”

“Late”

We exist in a world where men with machine guns stand on every street corner and watch you. Where women are bound and gagged so they cannot move or speak. June tells us she was asleep when there were “temporary” inconveniences. When the Constitution was “suspended.” When women en masse were denied their jobs and their pay. In a flashback, June and Moira are jogging and getting ugly stares from passersby. Do two women jogging together deserve the incredulous stink-eye? They stop for coffee. June discovers she has no money in her bank account. The barista tells her to come back when she has money. He says, “Fucking sluts, get the fuck out of here,” which is on its face ridiculous and over-the-top in attempting to establish hatred for women. Moira and June? These women do not look like “fucking sluts,” and even if they did, I’m pretty sure the customer service handbook would make a point to advise their employees not to engage people in this manner. The scene is so laughably excessive it doesn’t belong in this show, but if it were true-to-life, someone (let’s say Moira) would be recording this conversation for later posting on Twitter and YouTube. Later, June and her female co-workers are being told they are to be “let go” (a polite word for fired) and to get out. If any of this were recorded and uploaded, I’m sure it would have an effect on the body politic. Creepy Guardians are kind enough to hold doors open for the women and their personal belongings and say, “Under his eye,” as calmly as saying, “Have a nice day.”

“Wanna move ahead but the boss won’t seem to let me, I swear sometimes that man is out to get me”

In the present, people (namely the Martha Rita, and Serena) are being nice to Offred, presumably because they think she might be pregnant. Serena even takes her to see the new baby. This is where I begin to suspect that people never truly change in this world. They can wear masks and pretend to be sheep, but being born a monster makes it difficult to hide that treacherous face. Serena is an object I would never consider for pity, although I do pity her and Commander Fred for their woeful ignorance and maladaption. I don’t pity Serena for her bursts of unwarranted anger and violence against either Offred or Rita. June visits Janine, who teeters on the brink of emotional collapse. She is possessive of her baby, and it is her baby, no matter what any of these ignorant women say. The “pretend” aspect of all of this frustrates me. In another life, Serena could’ve been June’s overbearing boss, and June could tell her to go fuck herself and walk away, but not in this world. This is a world where women are not permitted to read, and they are supposed to pretend that they are unable to read because they are women. June pumps Nick, the driver, for information about Ofglen. Nick is a slug, perhaps well-meaning and distracted, but a slug nonetheless. Another flashback reveals all the money has been moved into men’s accounts; husbands or next-of-kin. This is where we sense Moira’s hostility toward men. She blames Luke for the actions of the terrorists, and in fact, she denies that this is terrorism; that this is what all men want – to control women, to control their lives, and to control their money. As a man, I can tell you that’s bullshit.

“I’m just a girl who can’t say ‘no,’ and I’m in a terrible fix!”

I’ve held back on discussing Aunt Lydia because I view her as nothing more than a lifeless vessel of torture. June is interrogated by an Official while she is poked with a cattle-prod by Lydia. They ask her about Ofglen. They ask if June finds her attractive. If Ofglen ever put the moves on her. If she knew Ofglen was a lesbian. Lydia, out of nothing more than anger, beats June after scripture is quoted back to her, and the only thing that stops the beating is Serena’s intervention, believing Offred to be pregnant. You can imagine the look on her face when she has her period. Now Emily (Ofglen) strikes me as a smart girl. She’s a college professor, for fuck’s sake! Why does she engage in a sexual relationship with a Martha in this climate? Is Emily turned on by housekeepers? Is it an act of defiance? Well, she just got her Martha-girlfriend killed for it, and they make her watch. It is a chilling scene that checks off two strong political talking-points: violence against women, and violence against homosexuals. Emily is then sexually mutilated for her transgression. There is another thoughtless flashback which shows demonstrators in a violent clash with Guardians inappropriately set to the strains of “Heart of Glass.” “Living in the Real World” would’ve been a better choice, but I don’t think the producers listen to much Blondie*. Did the demonstrators think they were making their case against men with machine guns? They are killing people on the streets, unprovoked. What were the protesters hoping to achieve? It’s at this point I start to ask, “Um, why haven’t we left yet? They’re taking our money and curtailing our rights. They opened fire on demonstrators. Is the car gassed up?”

Hang in there, Baby!

Serena arranges to put Offred in a nice bedroom, rather than stay in the “suicide-attic” in which the previous handmaid resided. Offred tells her she’s not pregnant; that she got her period. This infuriates Serena who drags her back to the suicide-attic and throws her on the floor. This is Serena. This is what she is and always will be. In another life, there would be compassion and understanding. Not here. This is a television series that would have to depend considerably upon the concept of “world-building.” That is establishing a world, like a game board, and then putting the players (or pieces) on that board with each new episode accumulating knowledge about that constructed world. The writers ignore the crucial world-building aspect and instead create the players before creating the world, and then expect the audience to play catch-up with their creation. “Late” is the main offender, because the writers believe they are being clever in only letting certain components of that world be revealed at the right time and place, like Lost with it’s frustrating flashback structure that served to mirror current events. We end with a severe close-up of Emily after she is told by Lydia that she won’t want what she cannot have – meaning orgasm from sexual stimulation. She goes from confusion to sadness to anger and finally screaming. Alexis Bledel is truly the unsung hero of this show. Gilmore Girls this is not.

* Where’s Debbie Harry in this world? Good-looking woman, great singer. Is she a Martha in this world? Did she fight the Sons of Jacob? Is she dead? Did she flee to Canada when she saw the troubles? Is she in the Colonies?

Under the Eye: “Birth Day”

“Birth Day”

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

June distracts herself during the Ceremony by naming off everything she knows about the color blue. We get into a ponderous tradition very quickly with the show about how swiftly the fascism can pierce us so often and with so much aplomb we scarcely realize we’ve been gushing blood until it’s too late. Offred and Ofglen trade stories about their jobs before the “reconstruction.” Offred was an editor, and Ofglen was a college professor. Offred wants to know why Ofglen knows an about an Eye in her house. During this exchange, and as a church is being bulldozed, they witness a minister being brutalized by two Guardians. I forgot to mention the Guardians. They’re the guys with machine guns whom everyone fears. I don’t understand the minister. Why is there a minister walking around like he owns the street? Why are we destroying churches when the property could be put to good use for something else rattling around in the brains of the Sons of Jacob? This is where the efficiency and economy of Gilead escapes me. Driver Nick reveals himself to be the Eye by stupidly telling her to not get too close to Ofglen. He also tells her the Commander wants to see her in his office later that night. The Birthmobile arrives to escort her to pregnant Ofwarren’s (“One-eyed batshit crazy Janine”) delivery.

“Dear God, make me a bird. So I could fly far. Far far away …”

June reflects on her own delivery of her daughter, Hannah. It became such a momentous event that zealots would pray outside hospitals, and lunatics would try to steal babies. The handmaids tell Ofwarren to “breathe,” “hold,” and “exhale” in unison. Given the circumstances of how rare live and healthy birth must be to this world, research and science should have offered choices. They offer choices even now with no such problems existing. Incentives would be offered to those fertile couples to have children. Health insurance would become a device of the past. When no one was looking, a righteous religious fanaticism was building in the people. How this could easily translate into the humiliation, enslavement, and torture of women is anybody’s guess. When you get to talking about the concept of equality to different people, you’re going to get a handful of different philosophies. Some people confuse equality with superiority. Some people confuse equality with convenience and opportunity. Some people will argue that slavery is a state of mind; that if you believe you are enslaved, then you are enslaved. I feel that the people who write and produce the show don’t quite grasp the concepts of freedom, slavery, and equality; that they’re either parroting the current hot topics and trends or they (or some of their more zealous viewers) want to suffer vicariously with the characters they’ve created.

“But I made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby, oh I’m gonna keep my baby…”

This is a bizarre delivery with a Commander’s wife simulating labor pain as Ofwarren experiences it. The mixed message of rape and the joy of childbirth gives the show an uncomfortable distinction. Knowing what we know of the perceived inequality of women, the obvious social messaging at work in the narrative, and the politics at play, The Handmaid’s Tale treads a fine line between leftist and right-wing dogma. All I can imagine is that women have gone mad in a time where their bodies have betrayed them and refused the purchase of a child that would grow inside them. That’s the only explanation I can muster for their advocacy of Gilead. Did they ever intend to enslave themselves in the bargain? This is not the story of men oppressing and brutalizing women for their own sadistic pleasure. This is the story of women willfully and deliberately participating in their own annihilation. These women do not have agency. This second episode is padded to the breaking point before the viewer realizes there were only perhaps two bits and a flashback. June goes down to the Commander’s private office. I realize the show-runners get their jollies off not revealing anything because they want us, the viewers, to be June. I don’t find the Commander frightening or imposing in any way, and I have reason. He plays Scrabble with her and we have to watch the whole game. No wonder the human race is dying off. The next morning, June discovers Ofglen has been arrested as Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” plays. The Breakfast Club this is not.

Under the Eye: “Offred”

“Offred”

Let’s just speculate for a minute. This is our world. This is a world of the Boston Red Sox and Friends on DVD. This is the world of the free press, of Annie Lennox, of Bruce Springsteen, of debit cards, and over-priced soy lattes … but … Our world has gone topsy-turvy. Something has changed, as in all good science fiction. The birth rate has plummeted due to an unexplained crisis. Bible literalists make their move. Through an extraordinary and unrealistic set of circumstances, these people have captured The United States of America. A coordinated series of terrorist attacks has crippled our Lady Liberty and made her impotent. Whomever you are, remember your place in the world when your freedom was deleted. The set-up is astonishing. June (Elisabeth Moss), her baby Hannah, and her husband Luke are running from men with machine guns as they attempt to flee the continental United States. Luke is shot and June and Hannah are captured. Hannah is relocated to a privileged family. June is forced to become a handmaid, the brood mare for a prominent family led by the Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). She is given a name: Offred, meaning “of Fred.” The property of Fred.

Get used to shots like these.

All of this would work well if not for the persistent confessional-style voice-over of June. Her purple prose comes across like a 15-year-old’s self-mutilation journal. The handmaids are told by their devoted Aunt Lydia that the “plague” was God’s plan; a response to birth control and abortion, drugs and pre-marital fornication. When Janine mouths off, she gets a cattle-prod to the neck and loses an eye. The handmaids have been selected for their fertility. They are to be “adopted” by the families of the powerful and impregnated by their commanders. Handmaids walk together spouting bizarre platitudes as bodies hang high up from railings. These are the bodies of priests, Jews, and homosexuals. There are men with machine guns behind defensible piles of sandbags awaiting … what? Attack? Attack from handmaids? Attack from enemy forces? It’s hard to believe in this total nightmare dystopia anyone survived the ferocious assault of the Sons of Jacob. That’s what they call themselves. They call the land they have stolen Gilead. The Republic of Gilead. Even though this is not a republic. This is not America. This is occupied land. The people may look like Americans, act and speak like Americans, but they are the Programmed and they intend to program the handmaids. There are cult-like sessions where handmaids are shamed, judged, and punished by their fellow handmaids until they are broken and then re-built into baby-makers.

“Respect the cock and tame the cunt!”

The Ceremony is a stylized ritual of rape. Creepy organ music plays as Waterford reads a passage from the Bible justifying this action. In strict interpretation of the Bible, Jacob had two wives, Rachael and Leah. Jacob loved Rachael more than Leah, so God rewarded Leah by taking away Rachael’s fertility and giving it to Leah. These Sons of Jacob have re-written their Bible so that Rachael instead gives Leah to Jacob as a “handmaid” so she will bear Jacob’s children, hence the Bible Literalists are not so literal with these sticky digressions. As with every cult, they highlight the passages that advocate their beliefs and disregard others, namely the love, mercy, and compassion present in many passages. Unimaginable cruelty is the name of the game in Gilead’s Bible. I say this as a proud atheist: you cannot mock what you don’t understand. Margaret Atwood’s, and by extension, the writers and producers of the series view, of religion (Christianity, in particular) is sadly warped and misguided. I have no doubt there are practices and sub-practices of different denominations that embrace cruelty and violence. We hear of them on occasion, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. At some point in the story, June’s old friend and lesbian, Moira, escapes from the handmaid orientation facility, but we won’t see the circumstances of the escape in this episode. June believes her to be dead.

“Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

The handmaids are gathered in a central meeting place to kill a man accused of rape. They each take turns stomping on him and ripping him to pieces. Why would the handmaids be required to execute this man, if only to make them all complicit in a murder without due process? In a flashback, we see June and Moira in more normal times when June informs her she is pregnant. There is talk of the danger of having children in these times, but there is no talk of the coming onslaught, the dark cloud of Gilead, perhaps because no one could ever believe it would happen. Along the way, June gets little indications that not all the handmaids have been programmed (the “true believers”). Her assigned traveling companion Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) clues her in by revealing her favorite ice cream (salted caramel) is better than sex. It occurs to me the character moments hold together better than the world that is being built. Ofglen informs June there is an “Eye” in her house. An Eye is a spy, a secret agent working for the higher-ups who’s job it is to keep tabs on Commanders, Commander’s wives, and Marthas. Marthas are essentially “the help.” Infertile, older women who cook and clean the palatial homes the Commanders have stolen from their rightful owners. June learns in short order the Commander’s wife, Serena, hates her, presumably for her ability to have children and the jealousy of “sexual contact” with her husband. June tells us she intends to survive for her daughter.

Monkees vs. Macheen: Peter Tork (1942-2019)

There is only feeling
In this world of life and death
I sing the praise of never change
With every single breath

Just a few weeks ago, I was writing about James Frawley; now Monkees fans have the one-two punch of grieving for the loss of Peter Tork. There is plenty of biographical information available about Tork on the internet, so I won’t spend much time on that. I’ll just do some basics. Peter was born Peter Thorkelson on February 13, 1942 in Washington D.C. He was a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village and then Los Angeles. According to the book, Monkees Day by Day (Andrew Sandoval), he was working as a dishwasher when musician Stephen Stills (who also auditioned for the show) recommended Tork for The Monkees. The producers were impressed with his sense of humor and cast him.

Since this is a blog about The Monkees, this will be all about Tork’s performance as the charming, adorable band member character, created for the show. Monkees writer Treva Silverman mentioned in an interview that the writing team couldn’t decide if Peter should be an idiot, or a genius. They took a vote and decided on “idiot.” After recapping 58 episodes, I think that’s a little too narrow. Peter was more childlike and naive than anything, with many flashes of pure genius. Certainly, he was one of the funniest performers, though frequently he had the thankless job of being the punchline of one-liners and sight gags. The character’s innocence, gullibility, and misunderstanding of situations was always good for a laugh. His questions to Mike or Micky would often provide exposition to the audience. Tork may not have always liked playing or being identified with the character. Micky Dolenz said in the Monkees documentary, Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees (1997), that Peter Tork had the toughest acting job, since he had to play a character the least like his real-life personality. Peter was possibly the most likable Monkee; certainly he was the easiest to root for. The band was a group of underdogs and Peter was the underdog among them.

One of the best episodes featuring Peter was “The Devil and Peter Tork,” a story based on “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Steven Vincent Benét. In this episode Peter nearly loses his soul to the Devil because of his love of playing the harp. Tork captures Peter’s childlike wonder when he first sees and then falls in love with the harp. When the Devil supposedly gives him the talent to make beautiful music with the instrument, I smile when I see his face light up as he plucks the strings. The Devil comes calling to make Peter pay his part of the deal and, thanks to Tork’s acting, I completely buy that Peter’s intentions were pure. He didn’t care about the fame and fortune he received; he just wanted to make people happy with music. Tork’s natural gift for inspiring sympathy from the audience went a long way towards making this episode work.

As a viewer, I don’t want to see the kindest Monkee doomed to hell, and I actually felt frightened for him. Fortunately the other Monkees rally around their friend and Mike convinces him that he can play the harp without the Devil’s power. Tork is convincing in the climax of the episode, showing us his anxiety and fear and then his gentle happiness when he realizes he’s really playing! Peter Tork’s success in these performances might have something to do with the fact that he wasn’t previously trained as an actor. His portrayal comes off as genuine, not practiced. He’s the kid in all of us, and he nicely contrasts the smoother Davy and cynical Micky and Mike. Peter Tork also did well miming the harp performances. Though he did subsequently learn to play, he did not know how at the time, and he watched Harpo Marx for inspiration on faking it.

Peter Tork wasn’t usually the star of the episode and many of his best moments were as part of the ensemble. One of the funniest episodes of season one was “Monkees in a Ghost Town,” and Peter Tork contributed many entertaining moments. In one bit, Peter lists the events of the plot so far, setting up Micky for the fourth-wall breaking line, “That’s for the benefit of any of you who’ve tuned in late. Now, back to our story!” Next, Micky gets an idea and Peter holds the light-bulb over Micky’s head. Both of these gags are over the top, and could have failed, but Peter sells them with sincerity and energy. Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz made dynamic comic partners and among their best scenes is their attempt to impersonate gangsters. Micky’s Cagney impression is a scene-stealer, but Peter backs him up as gruff-voiced sidekick, Spider. For the few moments while the illusion lasts, Peter Tork captures Spider’s physical stance and aggression and he and Micky Dolenz nail the comic timing. After the duo are busted, Peter resorts to his usual little boy demeanor, protesting to the real gangsters that they can’t step on a spider because “…it’ll rain.” Again, such a silly line could have easily been a groaner but Tork could always say that kind of stuff like he meant it. At the climax of the episode, when Peter gets a hold of the gangster’s gun, even big, bad Lenny is rooting for him and prompts him with his own famous line, “You guys ain’t goin’ nowhere!”

I could go on forever, mentioning memorable performances of Peter Tork’s from the series. But, in the interest of time, here’s a quick list of 10 more of my favorite Peter moments:

“I’ve Got a Little Song Here”–After a few failed attempts, Monkee Man Peter finally learns to fly.
“One Man Shy”–Peter gains confidence in his ability to win over the ladies and gets them all to kiss him in a game of spin the bottle.
“Too Many Girls”–Peter as The Amazing Pietro: “Notice that my fingers never leave my hands.”
“Find the Monkees”– Peter comes up with the idea to “be” the band that television producer Benson Hubbell is trying to find.
“Monkees a la Mode”–Peter sweetly menaces Robroy and blocks him from leaving the stage.
“It’s a Nice Place to Visit”– Peter’s surprises Micky, Mike and the audience with a cool, gun-twirling maneuver.
“Hillbilly Honeymoon”–Peter as Uncle Racoon pulls off an over-the-top hillbilly accent and gives marriage advice to the lovelorn Jud.
“Monkees Marooned”– Peter is miraculously able to communicate with Kimba of the Jungle, learning his entire life story from the word “Kretch.”
“The Card Carrying Red Shoes”–Peter evades amorous Natasha, who chases him around the pad. “Well, I love you and my face loves you, it’s just my body that’s out of shape.”
“Monkees on the Wheel,”–In a rare out-of-character moment, Peter as “The Professor” uses his “system” to trick the gangsters into getting drunk and passing out.

Of course I don’t want to end this post without talking about music. Peter Tork was, rightly or wrongly, considered one of the two “real musicians” of the cast. He’s the musician behind the memorable piano lick on “Daydream Believer” (John Stewart). Though he didn’t get to sing as much, I always enjoyed the duet with Micky Dolenz on “Words” (Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart) and what the heck, I even liked the novelty-folk song, “Auntie Grizelda,” (Diane Hildebrand/Jack Heller) which was certainly well-used for romps on the show. I’m also a fan of his songwriting contributions to the Head soundtrack, “Can You Dig It?” and “Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” (Interesting that both song titles are questions.) “Can You Dig It” is one of the strongest tracks. Last but not least, one of my favorite Peter Tork-penned songs was on the album Headquarters, “For Pete’s Sake.” This tune was the closing theme in the second season and one I remember fondly. Though I was often sad to hear it because it meant the episode was over. The song has lovely lyrics and captures the psychedelic feel of the second season.

In this generation
In this lovin’ time
In this generation
We will make the world shine

After the show ended, Peter Tork was the first to leave the band in 1968. He worked as a solo musician, formed other bands, even tried his hand at a recording and film production company. He reunited with the other Monkees several times for tours, albums, the 1997 special, and the fifty year reunion album, Good Times!. He contracted adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2009. He died of complications from the disease on February 21, 2019 in his home in Connecticut.

The Monkees universe and the world in general is a sadder place without this funny, charming, brilliant man.

by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examined the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.

Monkees vs. Macheen: James Frawley (1936-2019)

Title-image

I was sad to hear of the recent passing of James Frawley, director of 28 of the 58 Monkees episodes. Born in 1936 in Houston Texas, he died of a heart attack on January 22 at the age of 82, in Indian Wells California. He is survived by his wife Cynthia. Frawley was an important figure in the history of The Monkees television series. I’ve frequently thought of him as a “fifth Monkee” and after writing the recaps of all the episodes, I came to appreciate how grand his contribution was to the creativity and spirit of The Monkees.

Frawley started out his career as an actor, trained by renowned teachers Strasberg and Meisner. He was a member of the Actors Studio and made his Broadway debut in a Tony-nominated production of Becket, which starred Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn. He also performed in New York with an improv group known as The Premise.

Outer-Limits

A year or so ago when I was on a 1960’s television kick, I stumbled across a couple of his supporting roles. Thanks to MeTV, I caught him in two episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: once as  Lieutenant Manuera in “The Giuoco Piano Affair” and again as Max in “The Dippy Blonde Affair.” (Fellow cast member of “The Dippy Blonde Affair” Robert Strauss appeared in Monkees episode “Alias Micky Dolenz.”) Frawley’s performance in both episodes of U.N.C.L.E. was top-notch, though I was especially fond of his portrayal of the angry young crook, betrayed by his father-figure in “The Dippy Blonde Affair.”  I also enjoyed seeing Frawley in The Outer Limits episodes, “The Inheritors Part I” and “Part II” in which he gave a moving performance as Private Robert Renaldo, a soldier who gets shot in the head with a meteorite fragment and consequently develops a beyond-genius level of intelligence.

Son-of-a-Gypsy

Of course what I’m actually here to talk about is Frawley and The Monkees. A little history I learned on how Frawley got the job: Frawley shot and edited two short 16mm films that attracted the attention of Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson. They were further interested in him because of a his experience with comedy and improv and thought that he would be a good fit to direct The Monkees. Frawley helped create the spontaneous comedy and the unique way the performers related to the viewers. Before the show started filming, he worked with the four Monkees for a few months in their own improvisational workshop, where they developed the humor influenced by classic comedy teams such as the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. Like many directors of The Monkees episodes, Frawley had no previous television directing experience, and he gave the producers credit for allowing him room to experiment. The first episode he directed, “Royal Flush” (also the debut of the series) won an Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Comedy Series, 1966-67.  Not too shabby for a first-time director. He was also nominated in the 1967-68 season for the episode, “The Devil and Peter Tork.”

Monkees-Blow-Their-Minds

Frawley directed some of the strongest episodes in the run of the show. One first season favorite, “One Man Shy” in particular captured the essence of The Monkees for me. It’s a “slobs vs. snobs” story in which Peter Tork competes with rich guy Ronnie for the attention of Valerie, a young woman who Peter fears is out of his league. The Monkees friendship is undeniable and touching as the other three rally around an underdog of their own ranks. The story is good, but the Frawley-directed performances make it awesome. A particular example of Frawley-directed chaos is the party at the end of the episode. Mike, Micky, and Peter rush in with one of their patented, disguise-and-funny voice cons, each playing a different “employee” of Peter. They are both zany and transparent in their attempts to convince Valerie that Peter is rich and successful. Of course the performance of the guest cast is important as well, and Frawley got a perfect arrogant-but-insecure characterization of Ronnie from George Furth.

Another memorable Frawley-directed first season episode was “Captain Crocodile.” This classic Monkees vs. showbiz story pitted the boys against a maniacal children’s television host. There’s plenty of witty dialogue (Micky: “So this is the world of television.” Peter: “Funny, it doesn’t look like a vast wasteland”). But the truly outstanding moment is the parody sketch of television programs of the time, complete with comic book heroes, game shows, and a special-effects-enhanced weather report. Each Monkees steps up and nails their part with enthusiasm. This fantasy sequence is a riot, whether you remember the shows they’re imitating or not. It’s their comedic chemistry that makes it so much fun. Of course, the Monkees would be nothing without their foils, and Joey Forman’s performance as the paranoid, crazy-eyed Captain Crocodile is brilliant.

The Monkees was at the top of its game when it came to spoofing Hollywood genres. Frawley directed the Western-themed “It’s a Nice Place to Visit,” a dynamic second season opener. The episode starts off as a typical Davy-in-Love story, but really heats up when Mike, Micky, and Davy, try to pass themselves off as bandits in order to rescue Davy from the terrifying El Diablo (Peter Whitney). Their swaggering bluff as they pretend to be cold-blooded killers is top-notch. Frawley also gets a great performance from Dolenz in the climax of the story, as Micky becomes the traditional Western hero in white. (Mickey: “That’s right. I showed up for the showdown.”) Everything worked together to make “It’s a Nice Place to Visit” one of the funniest episodes: The production values, the sight gags, the dialogue, and of course the performances.

Monkees Marooned

Frawley also performed to one degree or another in multiple episodes. He loaned his voice as Mr. Schneider, characters calling on the telephone, and other odd talking objects. He often pulled double duty as an actor and a director. You can catch a glimpse him as the Dragon of the Moat in “Fairy Tale,” a Yugoslavian guest in “Son of a Gypsy,” and Dr. Schwartzkov in “Monkees Marooned.” In a meta-moment, he played the frustrated director in “Monkees in Paris” (directed by Bob Rafelson.) The biggest chunk of camera time he had came from the episode “The Monkees Blow Their Minds,” directed by David Winters, in which he played dim sidekick, Rudy Bayshore. All of those performances were uncredited.

Of course, Frawley directed numerous projects after The Monkees. One that’s close to my heart is The Muppet Movie (for which he also made a cameo appearance). Jim Henson hired Frawley on the basis of his work on The Monkees and because of his experience as an actor. I always thought that the humor on The Muppets television show had certain similarities to The Monkees. It was also a weekly musical comedy that did showbiz parodies and had humor to appeal to both kids and adults. Going to see the Muppets on the big screen was a huge deal for me. I played the soundtrack as often as possible on my dad’s car stereo.

muppet-movie

Frawley also directed films such as The Christian Licorice Store, Kid Blue, and The Big Bus. Most of his work was for television, including the pilot for Ally McBeal, episodes of That Girl, Chicago Hope, Law & Order, Grey’s Anatomy, American Gothic, Columbo, Magnum, P.I., and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. That’s just to name a few. He retired around 2009.

All of the above is my humble attempt to pay tribute to a talented director who knew how to get the best from his performers. I’d say he’s an unsung hero of The Monkees. When I watched the show as a kid, I never gave a thought to the artists behind the scenes. I tended to credit the actors themselves as just being naturally funny, but ultimately a director can make or break a film, television episode, etc.  It’s the unique comedy and the lively performances that made The Monkees a joy to watch again and again. James Frawley will always have a place in my heart and mind.

Monkees in Paris

Full list of episodes directed by Frawley.

Some Like It Lukewarm (1968)
Monkees Race Again (1968)
The Devil and Peter Tork (1968)
The Monkee’s Paw (1968)
Monstrous Monkee Mash (1968)
Fairy Tale (1968)
Monkees in Texas (1967)
Hitting the High Seas (1967)
The Card Carrying Red Shoes (1967)
Monkees Marooned (1967)
Hillbilly Honeymoon (1967)
The Picture Frame (1967)
A Nice Place to Visit (1967)
Monkees on the Line (1967)
Monkee Mother (1967)
Monkees Chow Mein (1967)
Captain Crocodile (1967)
Monkees in the Ring (1967)
Son of a Gypsy (1966)
Too Many Girls (1966)
Dance, Monkee, Dance (1966)
One Man Shy (1966)
Monkees à la Carte (1966)
Monkees in a Ghost Town (1966)
Success Story (1966)
Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers (1966)
Monkee See, Monkee Die (1966)
Royal Flush (1966)

by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examined the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.