By Glenn Kenny
Updated September 29, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

”The Prefab Four,” hipsters sneeringly designated the Monkees, the first made-for-TV rock group, when the combo’s comedy series premiered on NBC in 1966. The Monkees’ subsequent success — both on the tube and on the charts, where they scored several hit singles and sold 8 million albums by the end of their debut year — had said hipsters sadly shaking their heads at how the Man (’60s-speak for, among other things, plastic corporate culture conglomerates) had co-opted their, um, scene.

That was then, before rock musicians of even the most ”subversive” stripe (Courtney Love, Trent Reznor) became marketing experts. Nowadays, looking at The Monkees: The Collector’s Edition, the whole enterprise seems quite innocent.

Next month, as Columbia House continues to put out its cassettes, Rhino, which owns the home video rights to the shows, will release the same material in the largest boxed set in video history — a $400, elaborately packaged, limited-edition, 21-cassette, 58-episode monster. Both include such rarities as Kellogg’s commercials featuring the boys and the rarely seen 1969 special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, but only Rhino offers the pilot episode. Additionally, individual Rhino cassettes will start popping up in ’96. Why, you ask, all this Monkeemania, all of a sudden? Next year is the 30th anniversary of their prefabrication, silly. Plastic corporate culture conglomerates don’t miss a trick — they never did.

For one thing, producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, obviously inspired by the distinct personalities of the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, picked four mildly disparate and appealing band members. Brit Davy Jones was the heartthrob; former child actor Micky Dolenz was the madcap; unprepossessing Peter Tork was the Gilligan figure; and Michael Nesmith was the John Lennon stand-in, droll and detached.

Then there were the shows themselves. Rafelson and Schneider, along with writers Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, were pretty hip for TV, and aside from the sporadically forced uptights and groovys they fed their Monkees, the dialogue and slapstick they concocted for the show were more often funny than not. If the Beatles hinted at Marxism in their films, the Monkees episodes are replete with it — bad puns, Groucho-esque eyebrow raises, magical costume changes, and more. In fact, long hair and flowery shirts aside, the Monkees’ shtick is often downright old-fashioned. ”Which one of you is Mr. Jones?” a courier asks at the beginning of ”Success Story.” ”I am,” Davy, Micky, and Peter reply, each pointing at himself. ”I’ve got a telegram for him, collect,” the courier continues. ”He is,” the three respond, pointing at one another. Admittedly, the bit itself is a little creaky, but in context, and given the zany energy with which the boys deliver it, it gets a chuckle.

Indeed, The Monkees wallowed in the absurdity of not only sitcom situations (band spends a night in haunted house in ”Monkee See, Monkee Die”; band unwittingly signs on for a stint on a pirate ship in ”Hitting the High Seas”) but the sitcom genre itself — even as the band was hitting No. 1 on the charts in real life, it was depicted on the show as constantly out of work. By each episode’s climax, the plot got tossed aside as the boys goofed around, accompanied by that week’s songs. These quick-cutting interludes, which once seemed like borrowings from Richard Lester by way of Mack Sennett, now turn out to have been proto-music videos. And the songs — often the work of Brill Building and Hollywood pros who knew the art and craft of great pop — remain undeniably catchy.

The Monkees might not really have had ”something to say,” as they sang. But, 30 years later, prefab doesn’t seem so bad after all. B+