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24Sep/111

The Amazing Mr. Monk

"He's the guy."

"Here's what happened."

These catch phrases were heard constantly throughout the remarkable eight season run of Monk over the USA television network.

Crime television has become grittier and focused on scientific investigations. Monk was a throwback in more than ways than one as a PG detective series where mysteries were solved by magical genius.

Monk performed acts of crime solving prestidigitation through his ability to look at the same evidence and see what other investigators didn't see and make the most amazing connections. In one case, Monk solved two cases by reading newspaper articles including one about a case in France.

This sort of genius detective had become fashionable with the success of Sherlock Holmes but fell out of favor with the public. Most of these genius detectives have been forgotten and even those who are remembered (Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown) have detractors who criticize them for being arrogant, too perfect, and not relatable.

Whatever the merits of these criticisms, new detectives have tended to be clever and resourceful rather than super geniuses. As such, the show creators were entering risky territory when they so overtly based Monk on Holmes.

Monk worked in the 21st Century because he was a very real and human character, beset by a variety of phobias and compulsions, and in severe grieving over the death of his late wife.

In the first scene of the Premier episode, "Mr. Monk and the Candidate", Monk incisively cut through a smokescreen by which a murderer had tried to make their crime look like a burglary gone wrong while at the same time obsessing about touching a lamp and fearing he'd left the gas at his home on.

The scene set the tone for the series. In Monk, was a mixture of brilliance and mental and emotional wounds. Monk's carrying two conflicting packages allowed the series to be not only a mystery series but a comedy drama with a character that viewers could relate to.

Monk's struggles gave him an unusual set of challenges. If he was going to make it as a detective, he had to not only find the criminal, but fight back against his inner demons. While few people suffered from the sheer number or power of Monk's compulsions and phobias, those who suffered from a few could relate and be encouraged by Monk's triumphs, creating a great human story.

Monk was far from the gold and distant geniuses who have all but vanished from the public memory. As Captain Stottlemeyer observed in Mr. Monk and the End, "I'd always thought that Monk was not all there, like there was something missing, like he was less than human. But he wasn't missing anything. He was seeing more than anybody. he was feeling more than anybody. That was his problem. He was too human. If we had more like him, we'd be better off."

The mysteries in the early seasons were great fun with stories like, "Mr. Monk Goes to Mexico,"  in which Monk goes to Mexico to investigate the case of a man who allegedly drowned in midair, "Mr. Monk and the Three Pies" featuring Monk's smarter brother Ambrose (modeled on Mycroft Holmes.)

Tony Shalhoub netted three Emmys and a Golden Globe in the show's first four seasons on the air.  Throughout the series, he was backed up by Ted Levine, who played the tough but kind Captain Stottlemeyer and Jason Gray-Stafford who brought more than his share of comedy relief as the eccentric Lt. Randy Disher.

While Shallhoub would remain, the show would go through many changes. In the middle of season Season 3,  Monk's first assistant Sharona Flemming,(played by Bitty Schram) left the series and was replaced by Natalie Teager (Traylor Howard) a move that some fans (not me) say led to the show jumping the shark. Stanley Kamel, who played Monk's therapist Dr. Kroger, died after Season 6 and was replaced by Hector Elizondo.

The show did begin to weaken, particularly as far as the mystery plots were concerned, in the second half of the series, but this had little to do with casting changes and more to do with the writing. More and more, the writers resorted to paint by number mysteries where all that was necessary was to remember that everything revealed in the story is a clue and you too would figure out whodunit.  In some cases, this was done because of the limits of writing for 40 minutes of story on television, with a mix of several genres. If it was a choice between losing something, the writers seemed to prefer writing a weak mystery plot.  Towards, the very end, it seemed the writers were just plain running out of ideas with episodes like, "Mr. Monk and the Dog" and "Mr. Monk Goes Camping" both of which used variations on  prior  better episodes.

Yet, despite this, the show remained popular because viewers began to care about the character of Adrian Monk, so much so that the show's finale made national headlines. And that's actually when I started watching it. Through DVD's and later the Netflix Instant Watch, my wife and I watched the whole series. I should add that my wife is not a fan of most mystery shows, but she loved Monk.

Over the next five weeks, we'll be counting down the top 20 episodes of Monk. The best episodes of Monk put together the elements of drama, comedy, and mystery.  Monk put a 21st Century spin on the classic detective story and created one of television's most compelling characters in the process.

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Comments (1) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Great essay, Adam. Monk and Columbo are the gold standard
    by which all other series are judged. I had an immediate reaction
    to the final episode and saw the influence of Edmond O’Brien in DOA,
    (as well as the ending of the last Harry Potter book) in the writing.
    I dashed off an essay and revived my moribund blog.

    See http://t-i-m-b-a-b-w-e.blogspot.com/2009/12/deep-thoughts-on-monk.html
    for the complete essay.


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