As I mentioned in my recent reviews of the Acorn re-releases of the feature length Poirot episodes from that wonderful long running David Suchet series, Monk certainly didn't invent the idea of an obsessive compulsive detective. Of course, back in Dame Agatha's day there weren't acronym laden descriptions of various quirks, not to mention actual neuroses, and so Christie's Belgian detective might be seen as simply fussy, a nitpicker who needs his eggs cooked "just so." Well, we're in a more clinical age now, for better or worse, so Adrian Monk is not only properly diagnosed (or at least we hope so), he's under the care of a therapist and has a trusty aide there to proffer a disinfectant wipe should any germ happen to land on his hand.
Longtime fans of USA's Monk have been fairly vocal that they've felt the series has lost its "mojo" over the past couple of years, starting with the departure of longtime Monk assistant Sharona (Bitty Schram). The fact is, despite (or in fact perhaps because of) Tony Shalhoub's magnificent portrayal of this frankly annoying man, Monk the show, as well as the character itself, may simply have worn out its welcome, at least for some. I happen not to be in that category. Though the show has become increasingly outlandish through its long run, it also delivers regularly in the laughs department, and the cast has that sort of fine tuned chemistry that only comes from years of working together.
Monk is an anomaly in mystery detective series in that the audience is almost always aware of who the "bad guy" is, often as early as the pre-credits tease. That should be the first clue (no pun intended) that Monk really needs to be approached as more of a character piece than a traditional whodunit, very similar, in fact, to what audiences came to expect from another quirky detective, Columbo. The fun here isn't in figuring out the mystery (though some episodes do play up that aspect), it's in the often hilarious repartee between Monk, the villain(s), and the other regulars in the cast, including his "new" assistant Natalie (Traylor Howard), Police Captain Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) and Lieutenant Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford).
Adding a bit of a poignant element to the premiere is the introduction of a new therapist for Monk, played by the nicely understated Hector Elizondo, a cast addition made necessary by the untimely passing of Stanley Kamel, who portrayed Dr. Kroger for the first several seasons of the series. The season premiere is in fact dedicated to Kamel, and the show, without being morbid or dwelling on what was obviously a painful transition, honors the memory of this longtime contributor to the show's success while at the same time introducing Elizondo's character Neven Bell with a fair amount of fun (when Natalie, hoping to convince Monk that this new doctor will be a good fit, points out his first name is a palindrome, Monk fussily argues that it isn't a true palindrome since one of the "N"'s is capitalized).
The premiere also has a couple of fun guest star turns, including a brief cameo by Jack Carter as an aging man with dementia who has a dark secret hiding in his past, a secret Monk eventually uncovers when he buys the man's home. Brad Garrett is alternately hilarious and chilling as a contractor who has some nefarious motives for wanting to work on Monk's new domicile. One of those beautiful little character touches that defines Monk pops up in this episode, when, amidst the ruins of a destroyed home, Monk and Natalie are being held hostage, chained to a tub. Monk asks Natalie if she can get to a big hammer sitting in a pail, which she struggles to do. Will Monk smash the tub to pieces to help get them out of their predicament? No, of course not. He drags himself forward (tub included) to hammer an errant nail back in that's sticking out of a baseboard and driving him crazy. That's the sort of elegant character-based comedy that makes Monk such a consistent delight even if other elements of the show are often patently silly.
Another great moment is much later in the season when Monk finds himself held hostage (what, again?), this time by a nefarious magician. When the magician's assistant tries to pass a key to Monk which will get him out of his handcuffs, she makes the mistake of keeping it in her mouth and then trying to get it to Monk via a lip lock. Bad choice, as anyone who knows Monk's penchant for avoiding anything even slightly redolent of any bodily fluid could have told her. (This episode features the always wonderful Jarrad Paul reprising his role as King of the Geeks, Kevin Dorfman, though longtime fans may have a problem with this particular appearance, for reasons I won't spoil here).
This season does have a host of fun guest star turns, including David Straitharn, Casper Van Dien, and in a breezy parody of 100th episode mania, the century mark on the Monk set features a great episode with none other than John Turturro, Eric McCormack, Sarah Silverman, Andy Richter and Howie Mandel, as Monk decides to review one of his most celebrated case crackings when a reality tv show decide to highlight his many years of detective successes.
Monk may not have the allure of the new which once drew relatively large audiences (at least for cable), Emmys and Golden Globes, but it still manages to regularly deliver wonderful character moments throughout this seventh season. Shalhoub has found a role which will probably define him, for better or worse, for the rest of his career, and he is matched by a similarly superb supporting cast that manages to just touch the edges of farce without letting the proceedings ever totally devolve into something utter unbelievable. Monk is currently finishing up its eighth and final season, and the tics and twitches of its lead character will be sorely missed.
Monk's SD-DVD release offers a very nice anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 image that is nicely sharp and detailed, with excellent color and contrast. Occasional use of filters and zooms give some noticeable grain at times, but even that is very natural looking. This is a lovely looking series that makes the most of its location footage in San Francisco.
The DD 2.0 soundtrack is equally good, with dialogue clean and clear and always centrally placed. Fidelity and dynamic range are excellent. Underscore is rather lean in this series, aside from the amusing theme song by Randy Newman. English SDH subtitles are available.
Three of the four discs contain four minute or so video commentaries by writers of various episodes. I actually found these more enjoyable than a lot of feature length commentaries. The authors are concise (perhaps because of editing--there are some noticeable jumps), offering little tidbits about various aspects of each production. The fourth disc offera an "Anatomy of an Episode," about Mr. Monk Makes the Playoffs.
If for no other reason than Tony Shalhoub's fantastically quirky and still very funny lead performance, Monk remains one of the most enjoyable shows on television. Yes, there's a bit of "been there, done that" and some pretty over the top plot elements, but the humor that is mined out of the interplay between Monk and the viral world in which he lives still provides laugh out loud moments with great regularity. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet