Thank heavens that the Andy Breckman-created TV series Monk is now finished, because at this rate I’ll probably never finish watching it myself. One and a half seasons down, six and a half to go…how are things shaping up?
It’s an odd mix this time out, it has to be said. The concept of Adrian Monk’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder gifting him an insight on the commission of crime that makes him so valuable as an amateur detective — so, the very concept upon which the entire show is predicated — is clearly something that hamstrung some of the writing here. While a level of ingenuity is brought to some of the schemes, the integration of Monk himself into the universe is often arbitrary at best. Possibly the best way to address this is to go episode-by-episode, so forgive my somewhat faulty memory if I skip a few details — I watched these over the course of a few months, and I’m not going back to rewatch them to get everything right because, well, I want to post this before the oceans boil away. No-one would read it then.
Series opener ‘Mr. Monk Goes back to School’ sees Monk (Tony Shalhoub) and Sharona (Bitty Schram) investigating the death of a teacher at the school Monk’s murdered wife Trudie attended as a student. Among the many things this show does well is set up an inverted impossibility, and so while we know Science teacher Derek Philby (Andrew McCarthy) killed his mistress, we’re not privy as to how he could have thrown her from a clock tower while simultaneously sitting in a classroom invigilating an exam. The method is that much-sought combination of clever and simple, but there’s no detection here that leads to the unveiling. Instead Monk has a moment of sudden realisation after being challenged to a fight by the ever-watchable David Rasche, playing an obnoxious PE teacher, where there’s surely ample opportunity to show at least some subtle visual clues to twig him into it.
Seriously, check out David Rasche in anything
The biggest disappointment of this first half of the series must surely go to ‘Mr. Monk Goes to Mexico’, in which a skydiver jumps from a plane, fails to open his parachute, and dies. At the autopsy, however, it’s discovered that his lungs are full of water, so he somehow drowned during his descent. Now, you set up a situation like that, you better have a good explanation. This…does not. True, the wider scheme comes as a nice surprise, and there’s a pretty good motive behind it all, but for the most part these opening episodes focus on how Monk’s particular nature result in comical hijinx — refusing to drink any water in Mexico because it’s the wrong brand (which feels like an extended advert for a lot of branded water…) — rather than anything to do with criminal investigation. I don’t even remember how he solves this one.
The motive in ‘Mr. Monk Goes to the Ballgame’ turns out to be another example of the creativity brought to the creation of this series, and while the episode is a bit of a mess plot-wise — it starts with a shooting in a deserted car park, and somehow ends up connected to major league baseball — it’s encouraging to see how weird the motivations are willing to be. Again, though, Monk’s little more than a figure of fun, having to umpire a Little League game and spending ages reversing decisions about each pitch (hur, hur, hur — because he’s famously so unobservant) and dusting off home plate. I can’t say I was dreading the rest of the series at this stage, but given you’d expect a show finding its feet to open with some of its strongest episodes, my hopes were not high.
The central conceit of ‘Mr. Monk Goes to the Circus’ — that the magnificent Lolita Davidovitch is only person with the motive (ex-wife, though it never really goes deeper than that) and means (circus acrobat) to have shot a man couldn’t have done it because she broke her foot a fortnight ago and her leg’s been in plaster the whole time — is solid. Monk does some good reasoning (the thing with the sugar cubes is cute) and we don’t get too bogged down in Hilarious Monk Shenanigans, focussing instead on Sharona’s fear of, er, elephants. The clues are good, too, with the key principle being put across very subtly…but the use of technology is hilariously dated (and surely wouldn’t work as shown…) and the idea that someone in that profession would take that risk with doing that thing to cover up so simple a murder falls apart the second you think about it too long.
The worst of the lot is ‘Mr. Monk and the Very, Very Old Man’ so SPOILERS AHEAD. A man kills someone in a hit a run, writes a confession in a letter which he puts (along with many others) in a town’s time capsule, which also contains the autobiography of the world’s oldest man, who is a resident of the town. The mayor promises to dig up the capsule and add another chapter to the autobiography if the aged gentleman is still alive in five years…so the day before “five years later” the hit and run killer kills the old man to stop the time capsule being dug up and his confession discovered. But…who’d be looking at all the other letters in there, anyway? They were only adding to the old dude’s package and then burying it again. And wouldn’t the extra chapter have been written by that point anyway? In that case it would get added regardless, so why did the killer wait so freakin’ long? And why does everyone then open a bunch of letters in there, and just start reading them? And what kind of presentation of marriage are we given with the Stottlemeyers (Ted Levine and Glenne Headly)? He lies to her, gaslights her, ignores her, and dismisses her and we’re supposed to accept their happy reconciliation at the end? God, I hate this episode so much, it could almost have been a post all on its own.
“Y’know, he has a point…”
‘Mr. Monk Goes to the Theatre’ is the sort of plot that’s been written to be seen from the outside and so has no internal consistency. Sharona’s sister Gail (Amy Sedaris), starring in a play, stabs a man on stage with a stunt knife, and he collapses, having been stabbed for real. Aside from the sort of cavalier attitude to searching for, and removing, evidence at crime scenes that would make Inspector Joseph French blanch, this is a puzzle set up around one (admittedly clever) misdirect, which would be easily discovered and so ultimately undo itself. No doubt, a couple of nice clues present themselves, but this is an investigation staged like an episode of a TV show — where someone disappears from consideration because they’re not written into that scene — rather than a TV show trying to capture an investigation. A short story, maybe; 45 minutes of TV, no
Clear the decks, though, because ‘Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect’ — in which Monk becomes convinced that a series of mail bombs are being sent by a man (Matt Winston) who’s been in a coma for four months — is exceptional. Honestly, I don’t even want to say more than I already have. The comedy is good, the clues are frankly weird — the ketchup bottles are a stroke of genius — and there’s a deeply wonderful piece of minor character-work (Shishir Kurup, playing a role I shall not disclose) towards the end. Even Sharona’s wastrel ex-husband (Frank John Huhghes) doesn’t unbalance things, so perfectly weighted is each element. Written by Karl Schaefer, and with six-and-a-half series still to run, how many other episodes did he go on to write? Nada. Not a single one. Because of course.
Like Death in Paradise sometimes, you can solve ‘Mr. Monk Meets the Playboy’ before the opening credits. A Hugh Hefner-alike (Gary Cole) murders the man about to pull the plug on his Playboy-alike empire, but how? Especially with an (awful, lazy, inconsistent) alibi? The most interesting thing about this episode is how Cole’s threat to publish old pictures of Sharona if the case isn’t dropped echoes Hefner’s (entirely legal, completely objectionable) use of old photos of Marilyn Monroe in an early issue of Playboy. Typifying the uncertainty of the writing still, the chance to actually expand on Sharona’s character when she learns of the threat is gutlessly turned into a nothing cheap laugh, but at least her son Benjy (Kane Ritchotte) gets a nice moment out of it. Aside from that, this is the kind of episode — cheap titillation and all — that gets crapped out when you’re not convinced there’s going to be a third series.
So, just as things begin to look up, they nose-dive. No doubt the core cast is having a lot of fun — Jason Grey-Stanford in particular — and there are times when the writing hits some great notes, but if you showed me this tranche of episodes and I had no idea about the show, I’d be surprised it ran for another seven years. Mind you, I said the same thing about The Mentalist, so what do I know? What’s good here is absolutely miles ahead of what was good about that show, however, and I’m encouraged by these high notes to forge ahead. It would just be nice if there could be more consistency in the quality of the output: seeing how good it can be and fails to live up to is infuriating at times.
Expect a report on the second half of this series in, like, months from now.
Monk reviewed on The Invisible Event:
Season 1 (2002)
Season 2 (2003-2004) [Eps 1-8] [Eps 9-16]