Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) is a uniquely talented and seriously disturbed individual. An ex-detective with the San Francisco Police now working as a private consultant, Monk was given a psychological discharge from the force shortly after his wife was killed by a car bomb. He continues to work because of his formidable and restless intellect, which effortlessly synthesizes inductive and deductive logic with common sense and keen observational skills. His reputation also tends to precede him, as street cops (as well as other detectives) view him and his seemingly endless powers with a sense of awe and bewilderment. Monk simply makes solving complicated crimes look too easy.
However, he is also obsessive-compulsive to an alarming degree, and is unable to function well - if at all - on his own. Even during his investigations, his nurse / assistant Sharona (Bitty Schram) must be in attendance or Monk will lose all focus and give into his anxiety. Even when she is around, he is prone to wonder aloud about things such as the gas range being left on at home and the like. After the emotional trauma caused by his wife's murder, Monk has been betrayed by that which has made him such a successful investigator: his keen powers of organizational thought. Not surprisingly, he is described as both "Rain Man" and a "Zen-like" Sherlock Holmes. His fears and concerns are almost boundless – he does not like heights, handshakes, milk, and, above all else, germs. (There is a scene in which Monk is in a room full of sneezing, coughing children that nearly sent me off the couch.)
The comfort Monk derives from order has extended to keeping articles of clothing in plastic bags (he also features multiple articles of the same clothing), touching and counting parking meters as he passes them, and even his ability to prepare his beloved pot pie, pea by pea. His anxiety is such that even out of place pillow on a couch can cause him distracting, all-consuming preoccupation. Sharona has become a part of that order as well, and when she is absent by the demands of her personal life (she has a young son), or because she cannot handle him at the moment, his world practically implodes. (There is a telling scene in the Premiere Episode concerning Sharona on a first date. Unable to stop thinking about a case, Monk arrives at her dinner, instantly diffuses her suitor's claims that he is an attorney, and simply wants to continue onward. Sharona, mortified, does not share his enthusiasm for summary judgment and complete lack of emotional subtlety. This is a match made in situational heaven.)
The Premiere Episode successfully demonstrates Monk's eccentricities and intelligence through his insistence that two seemingly unrelated murders are somehow connected, including the attempted assassination of a not-terribly-popular politician. The Mayor's office, under increasing pressure to solve the matters, has ordered that Monk be brought in to assist the police to virtually everyone's chagrin. It also introduces its fine supporting players: Schram as the patient-to-a-limit Sharona; Ted Levine as the doubtful yet fair Capt. Stottlemeyer, played with gusto; and Stanley Kamel as Dr. Kroger, Monk's alternate (and likely imagined) adversary and confidant. The episode also features a good supporting turn by Gail O'Grady as the politician's wife.
The most interesting aspect of Monk is the tightrope that it forces itself to balance upon by its very structure and lead character. Detectives with some sort of shtick are common in both literature and television, and Monk is no exception. His disorders have thus far been played for broad comedy and effective drama, and have not fallen into the tempting trap of either simplistic slapstick or pathos. Each mystery affords Monk (and the viewer) the opportunity to confront and test his maladjustments, whether played for a wink or something deeper. This balance is critical to the show's tone and will remain paramount to its success. If the program should ever become too reliant on his tics or anxieties - or use them a crutch at the expense of its mysteries - it will run the risk of becoming generically formulaic and will lose its luster immediately. Shalhoub, however, is Monk's greatest asset and the sort of actor whose intellect permeates every performance – as long as the writers continue holding up their end of the bargain, Monk will likely continue to be one of television's best adult comedy / dramas.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, Monk's transfer does not appear quite as pleasing as one would expect. It suffers from some aggressive edge enhancement & graininess that is actually distracting in a few instances, and contrast levels vary, especially in outdoor sequences. Black levels are generally acceptable, and both color saturation and flesh tones appear adequate. Hopefully these concerns will be addressed prior to the potential release of a Season One set.
Audio: Presented in DD 2.0, the audio on Monk is serviceable. The dialogue in the initial scenes is somewhat difficult to hear; however, this quickly passes and the rest of the feature sounds adequate. There is nothing significant to note in terms of surround activity, as dialogue is the central concern. The sprightly, plucky soundtrack sounds good and nicely complements the proceedings.
Spanish and French DD 2.0 mixes, as well as English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
Extras: There are no supplemental features included with this release.
Final Thoughts: Although it may seem a tall order to be invited to laugh at someone who is clearly troubled, Monk's general approach is warmly lighthearted and genial. It is also surprisingly effective at occasional drama, and boasts a terrific ensemble cast and an inspired lead performance by Tony Shalhoub. Its mysteries are often – but not always – as clever as the detective, and their twists and turns are as likely to surprise as amuse. Monk is recommended for fans of Shalhoub, light mystery, and intelligent comedy / drama.
However, I have to take exception with Universal's decision to release one 79-minute episode of Monk as a stand-alone release, as it places fans in a truly unenviable position. (I have also expressed this concern with the similar releases of the Premiere Episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.) If this release is, as I suspect, a test balloon for a box set, it comes at a spectacularly high – and disrespectful – price. Fans will (presumably) be expected to purchase this as a vote of confidence, which is dubious: buy it now, and if enough units sell, Season One will be released for purchase. So, buy it now and buy it again later, or refuse to at the risk of Season One never seeing the light of day.
As it stands, I recommend Monk as a rental. I also strongly recommend that those interested in a Season One release e-mail Universal to express their desire, rather than shelling out the funds that would otherwise be used for a box set purchase.