Adrian Monk is not your typical television detective. Played with quirkiness and understated erudition by Emmy-winning actor Tony Shalhoub, Monk doesn’t cruise around in a convertible with the wind whipping at his chest hair, like Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I.; actually, he’s afraid of driving. He’s hardly Telly Savalas’s tough-talking bruiser, Kojak; Monk usually shies away from violence. He’s been compared to Peter Falk’s loquacious Columbo; but the taciturn, fastidious Monk would rather die than be caught in a rumpled overcoat reeking of cigar smoke.
Half Perry Mason and half Felix Unger, Adrian Monk is a bundle of nerves hindered by a thousand phobias—not nearly as afraid of criminals as he is of crowded elevators, sidewalk cracks, flying in airplanes, and milk. The show often finds him trying to track down the killers of his beautiful wife, Trudy, who perished years before in a car bombing. Having recovered from the resulting depression—which sidelined him for almost four years—Monk still has a tough time being reinstated to the San Francisco Police Department because of his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Yet his OCD is also the key to his unusual detective skills. A compulsive counter and memorizer of facts, Monk is observant to a fault: his brain is an encyclopedic storehouse of visual trivia, sounds, smells, and voices. A photographic memory, combined with extraordinary sensory perception and an ability to quickly integrate seemingly unrelated clues, make Monk a cerebral hero. So when the police run into a dead end, they call in Adrian Monk—now a private consultant—to crack the case.
A typical murder scene: a woman lies dead on the kitchen floor in her own blood. The officers assigned to the case are stumped: they find no clues to the killer’s identity. But after studying the room, Monk figures the murderer to be a 6’2” or 6’3” male. How? He has noticed that, though the victim was short, the chair in front of her computer has been lowered all the way.
“He was in here. He was waiting at least an hour,” Monk concludes confidently.
“How can you tell?” a police detective inquires.
“He was smoking,” Monk replies, walking over to a window. “You can still smell it on the curtains. Menthols. Salems, possibly Newports.”
The detective counters that maybe the victim was the smoker.
“No…no…” Monk points to a wooden cross, next to which stands an etching of theologian John Calvin. “She was a Dutch Calvinist. They don’t smoke. They consider their bodies to be a holy chalice.”
Monk is the brainchild of creator Andy Breckman, who based his eccentric detective on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. A former writer for Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman, Breckman set out to “write a show I would want to watch. Every week, we plan the perfect murder.” With Monk, Breckman and his writers have fashioned a satisfying mix of whodunit drama and light-hearted comedy. The writing is intelligent without relying on technical jargon. It also avoids the crassness found in many of today’s shows.
“A lot of what we see on TV, adults don’t want their kids to watch,” says Shalhoub. “Or, if the kids watch it, it’s boring to the adults, sort of mindless.” Monk, though, “appeals across the board. I think that’s good, because there’s so little else out there people want to see together.”
Monk brings together such noted talents as cinematographer Anthony Palmieri, costume designer Ileane Meltzer, and production designer Susan Longmire. They’ve created a visually alluring world, taking advantage of San Francisco locales that pose many dizzying challenges for the acrophobic detective.
In fact, careful viewers will note many visual references to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo, another mystery about a San Francisco police detective immobilized by fear of heights and the loss of his beloved. In a recent episode, for example, Monk spots a mysterious woman who might be his deceased wife, Trudy. As in Vertigo, the woman who haunts the obsessed detective is dressed in a well-tailored gray suit.
A likable cast of supporting characters navigate Adrian Monk through the germ-laden labyrinth of his everyday life.
“I believe in what I can see.” --Adrian Monk
Up until last season the sexy and straight-talking Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram), Monk’s nurse and gal Friday, helped him overcome his myriad phobias. Sharona was on call to prepare his meals (as long as the foods don’t touch
), answer his phone, and dispense anti-bacterial wipes after he shook hands or touched other havens for germs, such as door handles or public telephones.
Mainly, though, Sharona provided the common sense that Monk lacked. While Monk inhabited his own abstract world, she guided him through socially awkward situations, such as trips to the grocery store or asking out prospective dates. The wise-cracking Sharona also was the perfect foil for his awkward personality quirks. Without her, Monk was literally incomplete.
On the other hand, Monk often saved Sharona from her own messes. When not focused on solving mysteries, he quickly spotted the frauds in her life, whether they were lying boyfriends or deceptive psychics. “I believe in what I can see, what’s in front of me,” the detective admonished her. “You’ve got to be a little skeptical, Sharona.”
Ted Levine plays police Captain Leland Stottlemeyer, a gruff-and-tumble tough guy who bears more than a passing resemblance to Stacey Keach’s TV portrayal of Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane’s hard-as-nails private eye.
Stottlemeyer would have been right at home in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, drinking shots and trolling for dames; but he finds himself straightjacketed by the Politically Correct atmosphere of today’s San Francisco police bureaucracy. Though he humors his airheaded, New-Agey wife (played with vacant aplomb by Glenne Headley), he brooks no nonsense from the cops in his precinct.
Stottlemeyer and Monk maintain an endearing love/hate professional relationship. An alpha male who hates having to admit he can’t solve a case gone cold, Stottlemeyer still respects Monk enough to call him in to bail out the department. “How does he do it?” Stottlemeyer exclaims in exasperation after Monk solves yet another crime. “I have two eyes. I see everything he sees…but I don’t see what he sees.”
Too green to be the cop Stottlemeyer is, and too slow-witted to be the detective Monk is, boyishly earnest Lieutenant Randy Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford) serves as the show’s comic relief. In one episode a suspect is caught with a cherry pie, which may contain a crucial piece of evidence. Disher gravely orders the suspect: “Move away from the pie, sir! Step away from the pie!”
Another regular, psychiatrist Dr. Charles Kroger (Stanley Kamel), poses rhetorical questions to his detective-patient, revealing clues to the conflicts that Monk must work out before the conclusion of each episode.
Actress Bitty Schram threw Monk’s world into a tailspin near the end of last season when she suddenly left the cast due to creative differences. Sadly, there is no replacing her character: though Sharona’s relationship with Monk was purely platonic, their on-screen chemistry was the kind you only run across every couple of decades.
After temporarily shutting down production, the suits cast Traylor Howard (Two Guys and a Girl) as Monk’s new assistant, Natalie Teeger. I found Howard’s acting to be abrasive and two-dimensional in last season’s closing episodes; Natalie and Monk just didn’t click like Sharona and Monk.
However, in the early episodes of the current season Natalie seems a better fit with the rest of the cast. At first, I got the feeling that the show’s writers were “writing around” her by bringing in more guest characters. These include Monk’s brother, Ambrose (John Turturro), who is so agoraphobic (he hasn’t left his home in 34 years) that he makes Adrian appear normal by comparison, and actor Jason Alexander as a cheap detective who tries in vain to compete with Monk on his own turf.
However, after the first couple of new episodes, Howard is beginning to hold her own with the rest of the cast. Although I’ll always miss Sharona, I’m glad to see that the writers made lemonade out of their lemons. Natalie doesn’t put up with half as many of Monk’s idiosyncrasies as Sharona did, which forces Monk not to lean on her so much. With each episode, he emerges more and more as his own man.
Though Monk became more predictable and uneven in quality immediately after Schram’s departure, the new episodes are up to the same level as the first two seasons. Loyal viewers like me can only cheer. Every week brings fascinating, mind-bending new puzzles for the detective in all of us to solve, as we strive to match wits with the incomparable Adrian Monk.
Monk: The Complete Third Season has been released recently by Universal Home Video. The four-disc collection features all 16 episodes, with bonus material that includes character profiles and outtakes. List price: $39.98. Previous seasons of Monk are also available on DVD.