'Monk' makes a compelling return
Wednesday, June 18, 2003

BY ALAN SEPINWALL
Star-Ledger Staff

Welcome back, Monk. You've been missed.

The obsessive-compulsive detective was one of last year's most pleasant TV surprises, the kind of colorful, stranger-than-life character who could easily have been solving crimes 30 years ago as part of a mystery wheel with Columbo, McCloud and McMillan & Wife.

"Monk" the series is so old-fashioned -- and by "old-fashioned," I mean more interested in plot and character than fancy camera tricks, sex and gore -- that it's a wonder it got made at all. As it is, ABC turned down the show, only to backpedal and acquire rerun rights to the first season after it became a hit on USA. (ABC, which had already screwed up one mystery franchise by passing on "CSI," has no current plans to repeat these new episodes.)

Success hasn't changed the show much, other than an appropriately whimsical new opening credits sequence and ironic theme song from Randy Newman. Monk (Tony Shalhoub) is still nutty as an Almond Joy bar, while his nurse/assistant Sharona (Bitty Schram) is still both in awe of and frustrated by her boss and his sick, beautiful mind.

Sharona has learned how to occasionally outwit Monk, though; during a chess game in an early scene, she licks her queen so he'll be too repulsed to take it off the board.

Monk was apparently a brilliant cop even before his wife's murder triggered his various psychiatric disorders, but the current stories suggest that most of his deductive skills are tied directly to his emotional problems. His particular brand of OCD compels him to look for order in a chaotic world -- frantically mixing the contents of two coffee pots, one regular and one decaf, to bring them up to the same level -- and that helps him notice minute details that the cops miss.

In the season premiere, a private school teacher appears to have killed herself, until Monk starts to correct the punctuation in her suicide note and realizes no English teacher would be this sloppy.

"It's a gift -- and a curse," Monk says of his strange abilities.

The double-sided nature of Monk's talents makes the show's tone a very delicate balancing act. Too much comedy, and you're making fun of the mentally ill. Too much pathos, and Monk becomes a tragic figure.

The premiere manages to have it both ways quite nicely. Monk goes undercover as a substitute teacher at the school and gets picked on by both the kids and the teachers, but he also has a vested interest in the place, since his late wife was a student there. You can laugh as Monk waits in the cafeteria line, and feel genuinely moved when he finds his wife's yearbook photo.

Whatever failings the show may have -- usually in presenting mysteries and villains that aren't nearly as interesting as Monk himself -- it always stays true to its brilliant, tortured hero, played wonderfully by Shalhoub.