By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
In one of the early episodes of The Shield, FX‘s seething, testosterone-fueled cop show, there’s a bit in which stodgy Lieutenant Wagenbach is taken off a serial-killer case he‘s been obsessing over and ordered to go question a psychic charged with embezzlement. The idea is to give him something lightweight to do to take his mind off the serious stuff. I like The Shield, but after sitting through three or four episodes filled with thugs, pedophiles and brutal interrogations, a scene in which a pair of polite police officers interview a mildly crooked female medium is a much-needed change of pace. Suddenly we’re back in the nice, cozy realm of ordinary human criminality, which doesn‘t necessarily involve shaving your head, owning an attack dog or keeping jars filled with your own sperm in the fridge, though it might, in certain cases, mean knocking off a spouse or poisoning the upstairs neighbor. (Let’s face it: He deserves to die.) It‘s like moving from a blood-and-guts-spattered True Crime story of inner-city mayhem to one of Georges Simenon’s novels with the cerebral Inspector Maigret.
Monk, the new series on USA (Friday, 10 p.m.) about a brilliant sleuth with a bad case of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a taste for fussy checked shirts, is a goofy variation on the traditional Maigret--Sherlock Holmes--Hercule Poirot mode of detection. (The second episode was actually titled Mr. Monk and the Psychic.) If you‘re tired of cops who shoot first and think later, this could be the show for you. Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) is a detective so clever he can tease a minibiography from a poorly knotted tie, so compulsive he counts parking meters when he walks down the street, so finicky he’ll pause to straighten a ”DANGER KEEP OUT“ sign while shadowing a perp. Germs terrify him, as do heights, darkness, milk and the thought that he might have left the oven on. Once an idea has lodged in his brain, it‘s there for good. This can be useful for detective work (he notices and remembers everything), but in all other senses it turns daily life into an angst-strewn obstacle course.
It’s also pretty tough on his clients. In the two-hour pilot that launched the show, Monk is brought in to solve the attempted assassination of a San Francisco politician. After watching him fiddle neurotically for a few minutes, the politician‘s missus isn’t too impressed. ”Someone tries to kill my husband, and you send in Rain Man?“ she demands of Monk‘s superior. But what really bothers her is the fact that he’s making her nervous. As did his obvious model, Columbo, Monk makes a lot of people nervous, even those with little to hide. He can make a cliche like ”You can tell a lot about people from their taste in art“ sound utterly menacing, particularly when he‘s looking at one of your paintings.
Monk was once the most celebrated detective in San Francisco’s police department. Then his wife was murdered. (The crime is still unsolved.) He had a breakdown, turned into a twitchy agoraphobic and was forced to turn in his badge. Now he‘s inching back toward full-time employment with the help of a therapist and some low-key freelance consulting work. He also has a spunky nurseassistant, Sharona (Bitty Schram), who cooks his meals, does his chores, and figuratively if not literally holds his hand whenever he has to visit a crime scene. Once there, Sharona pretty much graduates to the role of assistant detective, although much of her energy goes into calming Monk down when somebody sneezes and discreetly slipping him a clean hankie so he can wipe his hand after he’s been forced to shake someone else‘s.
As a partnership, this is both cute and novel. Monk would find it hard to touch a criminal let alone beat one up, and Sharona’s about as far from a blank-faced karate-chopping clotheshorse like Alias‘ Jennifer Garner as you can get while still being good-looking. This is a gentle crime show that appears to have no interest in urban realism, pumped-up biceps or ”issues.“ (A pity in a way, because if it did, Shalhoub might be portraying American television’s first Arab-American detective. But then we‘d have to sit through lots of dumb, tedious lectures about discrimination, so perhaps it’s better the way it is.) Instead, the show concentrates on the good old-fashioned pleasures of watching an eccentric sleuth go about his business. It‘s too early to tell whether Monk will continue to intrigue or if he’ll slowly petrify into a gimmicky collection of neuroses, but so far things look promising.
The show does have some problems, however. It‘s not Monk or Sharona; it’s everybody and everything else. Writer and executive producer Andy Breckman, formerly of Saturday Night Live and author of that memorably funny song ”Here Comes My Career“ (”I have my friends, their names are Jack and JoeThey come to every show“), seems to have put so much energy into his two leads that there‘s little left over for anyone else. Ultimately, it’s not enough for the detective to be interesting; the people he investigates have to grab our attention as well. So far, unfortunately, they read more like props designed to offset Monk‘s brilliance than living, breathing characters.
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