#518: The Providential Op – Offbeat Criminal Detection in Monk Season 1 (2002)

Monk S1

Running for 125 episodes over eight seasons from 2002 to 2009, the TV series Monk — created by Andy Breckman and starring Tony Shalhoub as the eponymous OCD-afflicted detective — was something that had drifted into my awareness without me ever really seeing that much of it.  Until now… [cue dramatic music]

The last time I attempted one of these American ‘detective’ shows was The Mentalist and, well, I only lasted half of the first series of that.  But, on the evidence of this opening dozen, Monk is far more my tempo — we’re squarely in the fair-play ethos of the detective fiction I go for, and the way it uses many classic-era conceits is sort of wonderful to see: as with the best detective stories, it drops in details that are easy to overlook but which, if you are looking, indicate the solution to the mystery of each episode.  Sure, it doesn’t always get this exactly right, and it’s easy to see how some of the episodes are spinning their wheels at times to fill the requisite 42 minutes, but for putting in the effort to create and produce a detective show that allows the viewer to play along at home it deserves a considerable amount of kudos.

Rather than simply list every episode and tell you what I thought of it, I’ve decided to take a more broadly holistic approach to this and just pick out some general themes or points to talk about.

Er, so, without further ado…

1. You’ve Been Columbo‘d…Kinda

For some reason I had expected this show to be a straight weekly whodunnit, so it was great to see as early as episode 2, ‘Mr. Monk and the Psychic’ that there was going to be some Columboing with the villains known to us from the outset and it being a matter of how Monk would catch them.  For some reason, I find this a weirdly more satisfying form of television than I do the straight whodunnit (this may in part be due to the liberties that can be taken with fair play declaration of clues when you already know where they’re supposed to point — the ‘logic’ that tends to be followed elsewhere is…questionable).

But what I especially liked about this approach was how some element of mystery was still retained in the setup.  With ‘…Psychic’ we see the killer commit his murder in the very first scene, but immediately after the opening credits we also see the eponymous psychic wake up at the crime scene having apparently driven herself there in a psychic trance.  How this is possible forms a nice piece of intrigue — and is beautifully resolved, as the best impossibilities are.  Equally, ninth episode ‘Mr. Monk and the Marathon Man’ shows us a man who is supposed to be taking part in the San Francisco marathon killing his mistress…and yet the tracker he was given at the start of the marathon gives him a perfect alibi since it shows him completing the course at a workable pace (and the chance of palming it off on another runner is considered and dismissed very neatly).

It doesn’t always work — season closer ‘Mr. Monk and the Airplane’ raises the question of how it’s possible the hide a dead body at an airport and resolves it with disappointing mundanity, and ‘Mr. Monk and the Earthquake’ crucially makes us entirely unaware of the key MacGuffin that powers the plot for occurring at the very same moment as the murder…a murder we see, but an action which is obfuscated from us to preserve suspense.  There’s a balancing act to these akin to that of Antidote to Venom (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts, which is similarly both standard and inverted at the same time, and while Monk goes one further in having an impossible element to these inversions it’s no less pleasing for seeing two apparently incompatible forms used so well together.

3 Chows

I probably should have taken some screenshots of these episodes.

2. Impossible is Nothing!

I’m known to be fond of an impossible crime, and with only DVDs of Banacek and the ever-decreasing circles of Death in Paradise to sustain me, I can’t deny a certain thrill at the number of impossibilities offered up in this series.  From the fraudulent psychic herself having no idea how she found the body in ‘…Psychic’ and the impossible stabbing on a ferris wheel in ‘Mr. Monk Goes to the Carnival’ to the aforementioned ‘…Marathon Man’ and the Willie Nelson-starring ‘Mr. Monk and the Read-Headed Stranger’ there’s quite a good range here.

Yeah, sure, ‘Mr. Monk Meets Dale the Whale’ — in which a man who weighs 800lbs and can’t get out of his penthouse apartment is suspected of a murder on the other side of the city , having been seen at the scene of the crime — is rather weak sauce, but the other setups are to be commended for their simplicity (‘…Carnival’ demonstrates cleanly and clearly how the corpse ended up looking like it had been in a fight despite the prime suspect denying any violence taking place) and creativity.  ‘…Red-Headed Stranger’ is particularly interesting for a conceit that sees a man shot in the back from a range of several metres and the only possible culprits being either a blind woman or Willie Nelson (yes, it’s actually Willie Nelson — clearly having the time of his life, and bizarrely looking far younger here than he did in Wag the Dog (1997)).  It can’t be either of them, and while to a certain extent that answers the question of who it is, the setup is a fun one.

I’m not pinning my hopes on future seasons being as fond of the impossible crime — it would be wonderful, of course, especially as these shows will doubtless tighten up over the first couple of series — but it’s great to see something new willing to swing at this and put such good efforts into the use of visual clues to communicate what you need to know to solve it.  One in particular clue could easily be a pure piece of poor attention on behalf of the program-makers, and I was delighted a) to spot it in the first place and b) have it turn out to be deliberately the key to the whole thing.  It’s difficult enough to work with the impossible crime, and harder still to do so while also laying some worthwhile clues, but early doors the writers here have a good grasp on what needs to be done and how to possibly get away wit it while also playing fair.

3. Guest Star of the Week

While not technically a weekly thing, and devoid of any celebrity stunt cameos — for now, at least — beyond Willie Nelson’s extended piece (for which he is generously rewarded with time enough for two full length music videos), there’s a certain pleasure to be taken in how Monk uses the rolling cast of “well, we’ll never see them again” characters that a show like this trades in.

Top of the heap is probably the wonderful Kevin Nealon in ‘Mr. Monk Goes to the Asylum’ as John Wurster, a psychiatric patient who apes people’s mannerisms and style of dress as a way to ingratiate himself with them — it sounds creepy but is played note-perfectly, with a sort of charming real-word absurdity that recalled Chevy Chase at his peak.

Wurster: “This is the Monkey Room.  Funny story about how it got its name.”

Monk: “What is it?”

Wurster: “We don’t know; we just know that there’s a funny story.”

Then ‘Mr. Monk Takes a Vacation’ gives us Polly Draper as a hotel chief of security who’s never actually investigated or come across a crime in the hotel in her entire tenure.  And ‘…Airplane’ has Garry Marshall — yes, that Garry Marshall — as extension cord salesman Warren Beach (“If it doesn’t reach, call Warren Beach!”) who is as intrigued by Monk’s insistence that a murder has occurred as he is keen on a quiet life, and who just can’t help but get involved despite his misgivings.

What’s interesting is that each of these characters stand out and steal the show precisely because you don’t get the impression they’re trying to do exactly that.  All of them, through a combination of canny writing and subtle performances (even when those subtleties are used in overplaying something), feel like a snapshot on a universe they each inhabit: Nealon’s pacifying nature and almost puppyish eagerness to find common ground, Draper’s desire to appear street-smart and cool while also hoping to be able to lead from the rear, and Marshall’s pride in his product and professional reputation honestly sketch out people with lives far more fully that a dossier 300 pages thick ever could.

And the show also has the intelligence to let these character beats occur to you subtly, too — to trust the audience to glom onto the little inconsistencies in Nealon’s opening scene, for instance — and let them breathe life into the performance that way.  Where it isn’t worked out so well — Linda Kash’s bogus psychic, say, who has to actually take Monk aside and tell him she’s a fraud…like there was no other way that could have been handled — there’s no harm done, but when they get it right you really feel the difference.

3 Chows

Still, the dogs always go down well.

4. Getting it Wrong

For a show that trades so much on its main character’s prodigious observational skills and memory — winning a game of Clue(do) before a single move is made because he remembers the order the cards were in when they packed up the game the year before, say — and its consequent reliance on him sometimes simply ‘spotting’ a guilty person at first sight, it’s refreshing to also see a fair few occasions where simple leg-work is required to find or prove something or, more tellingly, to see Monk get stuff just plain wrong.

It’s probably sensible not to go into too great detail, since that would constitute spoilers, but on a few occasions he declares a person guilty of the crime early on only for it to turn out to be an entirely different person who is guilty.  Or ‘…Vacation’ is interesting for the desperate search for a body that only a few people believe exist (though the resolution of that…I mean, really, you didn’t look there?! The Roman Hat Mystery would like a word…).  This is a good policy in this sort of show because it means when Monk is right on unusual evidence — such as noting that a woman no longer needs to go up on tiptoe to kiss her husband — the people around him who know how brilliant he can be (his assistant Sharona, SFPD Captain Stottlemeyer) are justified in not necessarily believing him and thus drawing out what scant narrative tension is to be found in such a setup.

It’s also interesting to see that old detective standfast — “You’re personally involved!”/”You’re too close to this!” — resurrected in the as-yet-unsolved murder of Monk’s wife Trudy and how elements of his grief over this forms the backbone of ‘Mr. Monk and the Other Woman’, where Monk is unable to decide how guilty or otherwise a woman who reminds him of Trudy is of the crimes that surround her.  With an infallible detective, or perhaps in five series from now, we’d be on far steadier ground knowing how this is going to play out, but without that comfortable background, and with Monk all at sea, we’re in for at least a small portion of the ride he is also on.  This overall betokens good writing, considering the wider universe of the show, and augurs well for the use of these ideas in the future.  Which brings me to…

5. Room to Grow

Perhaps best of all — especially as the show ran for eight series, and so has a lot of stories to tell — is the space that clearly exists for the show to expand into.  It feels like a format very much trying out its ground (which is weird, when you consider how familiar the fictional detective character is) as if there are other things it wants to be beyond simply a show with an OCD main character.  I’m not suggesting for a second that the show will or should get weight down in these concerns, but I found it really interesting how the concepts of racism, xenophobia, and class privilege cropped up in small ways in several episodes.

The first occurs in ‘…Marathon Man’ when Monk uses antiseptic wipes to clean his hands — a habit born of his chronic germ-phobia — after shaking hands with one of the marathon volunteers who happens to be a black man.  It’s never resolved, and indeed there would be characters who finish that episode still believing him to harbour racist feelings, but the idea of that being misconstrued in such a way is fascinating to me.  In ‘…Earthquake’ Monk, having had a mental disconnect on account of the chaos wrought in his apartment by an earthquake, is spouting gibberish while under the impression he’s talking lucidly.   There’s a short scene in which he’s trying to direct a taxi driver to a crime scene and the cabbie is grumbling something along the lines of “You come over here and you can’t be bothered to learn the language…” and, again, the possibilities this opens up — especially given Tony Shalhoub’s Lebanese heritage — just feel a bit deeper than your standard Mystery of the Week fare.

And, in light of how thin some of the mysteries are, it’s also encouraging to see that there’s time in certain episodes where tighter writing would result in another subplot or a more complicated skein.  Maybe this will give the slightly more adventurous stories like ‘Mr. Monk and the Billionaire Mugger’ the space they need to really take off.  Or maybe Sharona could meet someone who isn’t cheating on his wife, a pathological liar, intent on murdering her, or weird in many of the other wonderful ways I have a feeling the series may yet throw at us.

Time will, hopefully, tell; I have the boxset, after all, and so might as well watch ’em…

17 thoughts on “#518: The Providential Op – Offbeat Criminal Detection in Monk Season 1 (2002)

  1. Glad you are enjoying this – not seen it since it originally aired but I enjoyed it greatly overall. The recent Netflix series, THE GOOD COP, is quite similar in approach – which is no surprise as it was created by Breckman. it only lasted one season (neither of the leads is especially well cast unfortunately) but worth a look.

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  2. JJ – Every episode of MONK has something to recommend it to mystery fans, but my favorite one is the 7th show of Season 2, “Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect.” It’s the only episode I can think of that strikes a perfect balance among the impossible crime, Monk’s OCD, and the humorous elements without going overboard with any of them in particular (which, unfortunately, many episodes tend to do).

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    • Good to know, thanks Mike. I’ve got another seven series of it sitting on my shelf, so if you’d said “Boy, this stuff really goes down hill for the other seasons” I’d’ve been worried!

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  3. I thought this was quite good for the first three seasons, and then slowly declined. It stayed good longer than I would have thought it could. The second side kick started well but quickly morphed into a milquetoast cipher, which didn’t help.

    Another fun series is Castle, which always featured a flamboyantly weird murder.

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    • I remember seeing trailers for Castle but, as a Firefly fan with a severe weakness for Nathan Fillion, I was unable to objectively determine how good it might actually be. I was never going to get to see it anyway — don’t have a TV, not signed up for any streaming service — so I just sort of let it sit somewhere in my consciousness. So it’s good to know there’s something to recommend it, thanks. I’ll get to that…let’s be honest, no time soon.

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    • I remember there being a reference to that “orbiting the Earth” one in the Monk continuation novel I read. I’m glad it’s an episode and not another book, since the books seem pretty much like four short stories with some fuller around them, and an idea that cool needs to be given some room to breathe.

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  4. Yes, the episode with the coma patient is great and a fine example of how an ironclad alibi can be presented as an impossible crime. Just a reminder: an apparently ironclad alibi can only be considered an impossible crime when the murderer appears to have been physically unable to have committed the crime. So no fooling around with clocks, eye-witnesses or tickets.

    One thing I love about Monk is how it showed it’s better to build on what has come before than it’s to remake/rehash. Monk obviously took its cues from Columbo without becoming an outright clone. The series made the inverted mystery format its own (by adding elements of the impossible) and had great characters, which gently poked fun at the genius, detail-oriented detective by giving him OCD. But if you like Monk, you’ll almost surely love Columbo. And vice versa.

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  5. It was really messed around on Tv in the U.K.
    I seem to remember the first three seasons were shown on BBC 2 at various times on Saturday afternoons and the show was then dropped. ITV took up the later seasons (although I have a suspicion that 4 or 5 were never shown at least on terrestrial TV.)
    The later seasons were shown at weekend lunchtimes on ITV but eventually they were shown at peak time on ITV3.
    Modern TV executives seem to have no idea what to do with this type of show.

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    • This might go some way to explaining why I saw very little of it — watching it on BBC2 rings a bell, and I don’t see the need for even one ITV channel never mind the four or five there seem to be now (man, I sound old…) so would’ve been unlikely to watch it on ITV2 at all.

      But, well, if I had watched it then, I wouldn’t have the pleasure of sharing discovering it with you fine people now. So, y’know, everyone wins in the long term.

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  6. I loved the Monk series and watched almost all the episodes as they aired. Some episodes were weak. some were quite good, some bordered on brilliant. The writers went back to many “classic” ideas/devices/tropes ranging from the “Paris Exposition” to “the six Napoleons” and on and on, yet they often put their own “twist” on the old trope. Many of the shows revolved around not just who dunnit and how dunnit but why dunnit. I guess the showrunners figured they had to put plenty of humor into the episodes—-sometimes to great success, sometime not so much. It was a great series.

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    • I’m heartened by this news, Bob, thanks. The impression this first bunch of episode leaves is one of a group of people who know their mysteries and are keen to find a new thing to bring to them, rather than stealing existing plots and dressing them up in new paint — ahem, Father Brown. So I’m especially intrigued to see what twists are bought to these classic staples. Ana who knows — maybe I’ll report back on them here and we’ll be able to pick them apart in more depth in future.

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