Bright Lights Film Journal

Mr. Monk’s Moods: Tony Shalhoub Returns as the Prince of the Obsessive-Compulsives in Season Three of <em>Monk</em> on DVD

Funny, yes, but where are all the queers?

 “Mr. Punctuality, that’s what they used to call me.”

“Did they call you that at college?”

“No, kindergarten.”

And so it goes with Adrian Monk, the germ-fearing, dirt-loathing, hand-washing, corner-straightening, claustrophobic, agoraphobic, arachnophobic, anal retentive obsessive-compulsive bane of the Bay Area underworld, now in his fourth season on USA in the eponymous hour-long detective series Monk, a show whose quality and consistency are almost too good to be true.

Monk is the latest, and certainly the best, of a long line of comedy/mystery “cosies” that always involve murder — but rarely violence — among the well-heeled and eccentric.1 If you’ve lost your appetite for gruesome autopsies (“third degree burns on the lips and tongue from an unknown corrosive”), lurid detail (“fecal matter and blood were found lodged under the victim’s fingernails”), and snarky one-liners directed at corpses (“That’s the last parking ticket he’ll ever get”), then Monk may provide a welcome change of pace.

We were first introduced to Mr. Monk more than three years ago with a rather tedious backstory: he was once a normal guy, just like the rest of us, a police officer absolutely besotted with his wonderful poetess wife, Trudy (Stellina Rusich, in flashbacks), who unfortunately was blown up by a car bomb meant for him. Guilt has turned him into an obsessive-compulsive freak who panics at the sight of virtually any form of dirt or disorder. His frantic efforts to control every aspect of his life make it impossible for him to function as a policeman. But his brilliant powers of observation and deduction allow him to eke out an existence as a freelance consultant to the police.

To buffer himself from the myriad shocks of a crass and uncaring world, Adrian relied on a classic nerd’s dream, his single-mom nurse, Sharona Fleming (Bitty Shram, right), sweet, understanding, and busty, who gave him sass while waiting on him hand and foot, passing him wipes whenever he had to undergo the indignity of shaking hands with another human being. Sharona suddenly disappeared in the middle of season three, clumsily written out without even the kindness of a farewell episode.2 She’s been replaced by a near-clone, Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard), also a single mom but slightly more upscale.3

Monk gets invited along on police investigations by Captain Leland Stottlemeyer4 (Ted Levine), gruff but lovable, of course, who naturally comes with a Barney-Fifeish sidekick, Lieutenant Randall Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford). To help him over the rough spots, Monk relies on his shrink, Dr. Kroger (Stanley Kamel).5

The action takes place in a sort of San Francisco never-neverland, where underpaid nurses like Sharona live in elegant townhouses6 and Dr. Kroger has an indoor waterfall/rainforest in his office. There are almost no Asians in this San Francisco, and I’ve never heard a Hispanic accent. A few blacks appear in “brief authority” roles as judges and doctors, but that’s it. Even more remarkably, there are no gays, in the city that pretty much defines gayness around the world. Even the antique dealers are straight! One guesses that, in a show whose protagonist could give Felix Unger neatness lessons, gay characters would just raise too many “issues.”7 If you can get past the unreality of it all — and who watches television for “reality”? — there’s much to love in Monk, principally the level of the writing, much of it done by Andrew Breckman and Thomas Sharpman.8

Monk: (straightening a Scrabble tile so that it is precisely centered in the square) You’ll thank me later.

Sharona: Have I ever thanked you later?

Monk: No.

Dr. Kroger: One of my favorite sayings is that whenever God closes a window he opens a door. Do you believe that?

Monk: Do I believe that that’s one of your favorite sayings?

Monk: What is that noise?

Dr. Kroger: It’s nothing. There isn’t any noise.

Monk: Yes, there is! It’s a light humming.

Dr. Kroger: That? That’s the white noise machine. I’ve always had it.

Monk: It sounds different!

Dr. Kroger: It’s a new machine. The old one broke. It’s just the same.

Monk: No, it isn’t! It’s about half an octave higher.

Dr. Kroger: Do you want me to turn it off?

Monk: No!

Dr. Kroger: Well, do you want me to see if I can get the old one fixed?

Monk: That, that would be nice. [beat] I’ll wait here.

For the first two seasons, the only downside of Monk was Adrian’s maudlin memories of poor Trudy. In the third season, poor Trudy has been pretty much dropped, and we’re getting more and more believable backstory about Adrian — that he was always obsessive-compulsive, always a misfit. He was the kid who was pushed around and bullied, the boy who was laughed at because he was afraid of getting his clothes dirty.9

The show is remarkably “pure” about Adrian. He never rises to the occasion. He always cracks under pressure.10 Obsessive-compulsives, after all, don’t always do well under pressure. It makes them more obsessive-compulsive, and less functional. And some of the “humiliation” scenes dreamed up for Monk are pretty tough to take. In one episode, he loses a chance to gig with his hero, Willie Nelson, because he can’t bear to play a clarinet whose mouthpiece bears someone else’s saliva.11

A true bonus is the music, the best I’ve ever heard on a TV show. The first season was perfection — each show opening with shots of San Francisco Bay with a trés suave acoustic guitar solo in the background. But this was too good to be true, and in the second season it was dropped for a Randy Newman ditty, “It’s a Jungle Out There,” which isn’t bad, but it’s a long way from perfect.12

As the third season progressed, the mood of Monk became increasingly serious, and in the final episode he decides against adopting a little boy — “I shouldn’t try to take care of someone, because I can hardly take care of myself.”13

So that’s Monk — excellent performances, excellent scripts, excellent music, and no queers. Hey, it’s an imperfect world!

  1. Previous beloved cosies that I never cared for include Angela Lansbury’s Murder She Wrote and Peter Falk’s insufferably cute Columbo. The most egregious failing of both shows was the use of the old “You were very clever, but you made one slip-up: Only the real killer would have known that the letter-opener was in the left-hand drawer of the bureau” gambit to tie up every episode. []
  2. I have no idea why Shram got the heave ho. Was she demanding more money? One guesses that her departure was less than amicable. The explanation given on the show for Sharona’s departure was deplorably sloppy: she remarried her ex-husband, who we were told repeatedly was a bum! []
  3. The public, presumably, loves single moms and doesn’t mind the fact that they pay no attention to their children. []
  4. The one nasty touch of the show is the captain’s wife, Karen Stottlemeyer (Glenne Headly), presented in a couple of episodes as a post-menopausal ditz who wastes huge amounts of the captain’s hard-earned cash on wannabe avant-garde documentary films. Dames! Documentaries! Who needs ’em! []
  5. Monk’s sparring with Dr. Kroger provides some of the best moments of the show. Monk wants to get better, but he wants to do so on his own terms. []
  6. A running gag on the show, and not a very funny one, was that Monk never bothered to pay Sharona. Also, her louse of an ex-husband never sent her alimony. So 1) how can she afford her house, and 2) how can she keep it spotless when she’s working for Monk 24/7? []
  7. On the other hand, Shalhoub’s acceptance speech at the Emmys last September may have fulfilled the show’s bitchiness quota all on its own: “Thanks to the Television Academy and to my fellow nominees . . . whoever they are. I’m not really that familiar with their work. But I just want to say, there’s always next year… except, you know, for Ray Romano.” []
  8. Special congrats to the show for having Adrian point out that “decimate” means “reduce by a tenth,” not “destroy entirely.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t go on to explain that decimation was “invented” by the ancient Romans as a means of punishing a legion guilty of cowardice in battle. A tenth of the men would be selected by lot and then executed. European armies continued to practice decimation through World War I, although they didn’t use the word and probably didn’t always go for the full 10 percent. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) is about decimation. []
  9. In one episode Monk gives Sharona’s son Benjy a rock-polishing kit on his birthday, which does not go over well. []
  10. This was true until one of the last episodes of the third season, when Monk did rise to the occasion and save Natalie, proving that he wasn’t entirely self-centered and uncaring. Another late third-season episode descended to the lamentable “only the killer could have known” deduction to solve the case. []
  11. Frankly, this part seems a bit fake. Adrian strikes me as more of a Chaconne in D minor man, but there are still limits to what you can show on TV. []
  12. Occasionally if we’re good, the original theme will reappear at the end of an episode. About midway through the second season the change in the theme was the subject of a pretty nice in-joke. []
  13. What about the fourth season? Well, I haven’t seen it, because I’ve pretty much given up on broadcast TV. Each episode of Monk on USA contains about 18 minutes of commercials and filler. Everything is so much tighter on DVD! []