On Television

Magnificent Obsession

“Monk” begins its second season.

by Nancy Franklin July 7, 2003

The USA Network, let’s face it, isn’t anyone’s go-to channel, but, still, I find it strange that not a single person has mentioned its show “Monk” to me in the year since it began. The series, which stars Tony Shalhoub, became so popular so quickly—it is to USA what “The Shield” has been to FX—that by last fall it qualified as one of the biggest basic-cable hits ever. You could attribute the Benedictine silence surrounding the first season of “Monk” to people’s not wanting to admit that they’re home on Friday nights at ten o’clock, if it weren’t for the fact that each episode also aired a second time on weeknights on ABC. I myself was off duty during the entire first season—out of town, away from the media maelstrom, and limiting my viewing to miners, snipers, and the Des Moines weather report—so I only just caught up with some of last year’s episodes, as the show was beginning its second season in mid-June. I didn’t expect much; in fact, I’ve been wary of Shalhoub for the last four years, ever since I saw the awful sitcom “Stark Raving Mad,” in which he played an unmanageable, “zany” writer. His character was nerve-racking and distracting, like a child in the car in front of you making faces while you’re trying to read the road signs, and the performance, unfairly, dislodged Shalhoub’s better work from my cranial grooves. That excitable, manic quality—I wanted to bottle it and not sell it. But “Monk” is so wonderful, so winning—it pretty much had me by the second minute of the pilot—that it calls to mind the famous line that Audrey Hepburn says to Cary Grant in “Charade”: “Do you know what’s wrong with you? Nothing.” “Monk” ’s charm isn’t the debonair, sweep-you-off-your-feet kind; the show is, after all, about a detective, Adrian Monk, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which isn’t exactly the stuff that swoons are made of. Its comedy and its drama are more genuine and more piercing than that. It’s the real thing.

At the beginning of the pilot, a bunch of police officers are standing around in an apartment where a murder has taken place, watching Monk. After a long, grim silence, he says, portentously, “The stove.” “Over here,” says one of the officers. “No,” Monk says. “I mean my stove. I think I left it on.” A woman in the group offers to go to his apartment and check. “No, no,” he says, and then, his nature getting the better of him, he adds, “Would you?” The back-and-forth goes on for a while, but at the same time that Monk is fretting about his stove he’s noticing details at the crime scene that have escaped everyone else’s attention. This is both the secret of his success and his bête noire: the fact that he notices things that others don’t and the fact that he can’t stop noticing them. When Monk’s wife was murdered, four years earlier, his already obsessive tendencies mushroomed into a full-blown anxiety disorder. In addition to his compulsions (he wears identical outfits every day, with his shirt buttoned all the way up; he interrupts his therapy session to straighten a pillow on a couch across the room), he’s phobic when it comes to heights, crowds, germs, and, of all things, milk.

A year after his wife died, Monk’s police badge was taken away by his boss on the San Francisco police force, and Monk’s goal since then has been to win reinstatement. He works as a private consultant and is sometimes called in by the mayor to help his former colleagues out with difficult high-profile cases. He is assisted on those cases, and in the trials of daily life, by Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram), a practical nurse in every sense; she has a no-nonsense approach to getting on with things, because she must—she’s a single working mother. Sharona understands Monk better than anyone else does, and they have a great partnership, but she doesn’t shield him from her occasional exasperation—she doesn’t treat him like a freak. At one point, when she quits (temporarily), Monk says lamely, “I’ll never forget you,” thinking that those words will get her back, and she responds, “You never forget anything.” Schram’s snappy liveliness makes Sharona more than a satellite of Monk; she is a character in her own right. (The show has also brought out terrific performances in its guest stars, including one by Garry Marshall as an extension-cord salesman.)

Monk’s neuroses are a source of comedy, but they’re not played for laughs, exactly; though his limitations often trip him up, he’s no bumbling Inspector Clouseau. The show, which was created by David Hoberman and Andy Breckman, links Monk’s brilliance to his obsessive qualities without oversimplifying the connection. It’s not his obsessiveness that makes him brilliant, and it’s not his brilliance that makes him obsessive; yet the two can’t really be separated. And Shalhoub himself is brilliant at conveying the tension between Monk’s desire to conquer his disorder and his dug-in defense of his behavior. He’s aware that most people don’t go around counting the bricks in a wall or touching every parking meter they walk by, but, for him, not to do so would be to put himself in dire peril. These aren’t things that give him pleasure; they’re just what he has to do to stay alive.

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