Favorite obsessive returns for 2nd year
You gotta love `Monk' for Shalhoub, Schram. Forget weak crime plot
By R.D. Heldenfels

Posted on Thu, Jun. 19, 2003

Monk is back. Prepare to laugh.

A surprise hit in 2002, the series stars Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk, a former police detective who was traumatized by the murder of his wife in a car bombing several years ago.

The trauma has taken the form of obsessive behavior. Monk likes things in perfect order, whether it's push pins on a map or chess pieces on a board. He worries about germs. He hates heights. All that has cost him his police job. Yet he remains a brilliant investigator, so he gets called in as a consultant on tricky cases.

OK, none of that sounds very funny. The crime-busting part of the series is often the weakest, including in the second season premiere at 10 p.m. Friday on USA Network.

But the series found an audience both on USA and in repeats on ABC (which has not yet announced more replays). That's a tribute to Shalhoub and series creator Andy Breckman, who never underplay Monk's behavioral problems but still manage to make him both funny and likable.

They have also wisely teamed him with a couple of very good actors, Bitty Schram (who plays Monk's assistant Sharona Fleming) and Ted Levine (as Monk's friend and sometime adversary, police Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer).

Levine does not have a lot to do onscreen, but it's important to have him there for the balance he brings to the part -- not too grumpy, wary of Monk's limitations but still respecting his old friend's abilities.

Schram, meanwhile, just keeps getting better and better. Sharona is another complicated character, protective of Monk but also impatient with him, aware of his good qualities but unwilling to cave in to him just because he has problems. There's a scene in the season premiere where Sharona and Monk play chess, where the scene, and both actors, are hilarious. (Even people who have never watched Monk start laughing at that scene.)

That said, the series is not perfect. The mysteries, including one in the Friday episode, can be weak, and the resolution can veer into cliche. The season premiere is a little too much like a short Columbo, especially in the villain played by Andrew McCarthy, or a mediocre Murder, She Wrote.

But even if the mystery is less than enthralling, watching Monk go about his business is a delight. So, in honor of the very neat Monk, here's a list of four big reasons to watch the show. Why four? Because, as Monk would say, it's even.

1. Tony Shalhoub. He has been very good on TV and in movies (where he almost stole Galaxy Quest). But this is the part of a lifetime, and he has made the most of it. He won a Golden Globe for playing Monk, and is now nominated for a Television Critics Association award for individual achievement in comedy. And yes, I voted for him.

2. Theme song by Randy Newman.

3. The chess scene in Friday's episode. I can't give away the little twist that makes it so funny, but it's worth a look.

4. It's summer. We can all use some light-hearted, sweet fun. And Monk is it.

Now on DVD

Universal Home Video will release the series premiere of Monk on DVD on Tuesday. Basic price is $19.98, though you should find it for less in stores and online.

And what will you get for about 20 bucks? The episode called Mr. Monk and the Candidate, which finds Monk in the middle of a couple of overlapping cases. It runs 1 hour, 19 minutes, without commercials. It's in widescreen format. There are foreign-language tracks, in case you wondered what Monk would sound like in Spanish or French, as well as subtitles in English, Spanish and French. But nothing special in terms of backstage features, deleted scenes or the like. In sum, you really have to like the show to want this DVD.
 

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R.D. Heldenfels writes about television for the Beacon Journal. Contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.