#1026: Is This the Start of the Breakdown? – Observable Calibre Decline in Monk Season 3 (2004-05)

I started reviewing seasons of Monk (2002-09), starring Tony Shalhoub as the eponymous OCD-afflicted detective who helps the San Francisco police solve unusual cases, a few years ago, and then came unstuck at the start of season 3. So I’ve finally returned to it, and here are some thoughts.

Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to come back to this is that this season starts off significantly weaker than the two which precede it, and after a few episodes I had to step away…and wasn’t especially motivated to return. The cast is still having a riot — not least in an early episode when Ted Levine’s Captain Leland Stottlemeyer has to incite a chimpanzee into firing a gun (yes, you read that correctly) — and the setups are occasionally colourful and inventive in the way that the best of Monk can be, linking some bizarre crimes with equally bizarre panache, but, boy, as things progress does it become clear how the overall quality much is lower, hinting at the amount of work required to maintain high standards in this sort of Mystery of the Week format.

The most disappointing thing is how thin some of these mysteries feel, and how much comedic padding has been sewn into proceedings to fill out the mandated runtime. This is unfortunately forced home in the first episode ‘Mr. Monk Takes Manhattan’, when Monk’s attempts to answer a simple question — all he really has to do is say “Yes” — are interrupted by a workman operating a jackhammer fourteen times (no, I’m not kidding). Elsewhere, in ‘Mr. Monk and the Blackout’, he ‘hilariously’ trapped in an elevator between floors and, for added comedic effect, the show indulges in some casual fat-shaming. And massive lolz in ‘Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine’ when the medication of mental illness results in a complete personality change overnight. Monk has always had a comedic element, of course, but it’s most successful in the throwaway moments (“…or her sister, Shelley.”) than in dragging out a single joke past the point of tolerance (c.f. wiping a tie with a microphone in it, polishing a buzzer because it has a smudge on it — if there’s a one-note joke to be leant on, it gets leant on hard).

But, see, you’d forgive this doldrums of non-humour if the mysteries surrounding them were any good, yet the show really falls down there, too, with its previous utilisation of clever reasoning and unexpected developments now replaced with lazy, half-realised nonsense. Among the worst is episode 4 ‘Mr. Monk Gets Fired’, in which a variety of crimes are tied together, but them being linked in no way proves the guilt of the murderer who is arrested in the episode’s finale. We know he’s guilty, because we saw him commit the murder in the opening scene, but were that not the case the intelligent viewer would be left wondering how the hell the burning down of a wig shop and the repeated theft of the police commissioner’s hat proved his guilt. Or take ‘Mr. Monk and the Game Show’, in which an answerphone message which cannot possibly be anticipated proves crucial…and, even then, doesn’t really prove anything.

Arguably some of these mysteries aren’t meant to be especially mysterious: ‘…Takes His Medicine’ isn’t very good at all, but the fact that the viewer is aware of what’s going on long before the police are only highlights how it’s really an extended reflection on Monk’s difficulties in living with OCD. Taking the time to acknowledge that this guy’s life must be pretty unbearable at times is at least a slightly interesting direction to go in, and frankly needed given then amount of “Haha, Monk’s a weirdo” material on show, but not nailing the mystery in your police detective show feels like a rookie error, and as such neither thread really hits, leaving a double missed opportunity behind it. Equally, some of the episodes that do commit to the mystery are just plain bad: if you can’t work out the MacGuffin in ‘…Red Herring’ or ‘Mr. Monk and the Election’ as soon as it’s introduced then I have a bridge in London you might like to buy.

Snatches of quality show through, of course, not least the show’s heart, like whenever Monk talks about his murdered wife, Trudy, a lovely scene in ‘…Blackout’ and a large part of ‘…Game Show’. This comes into stronger focus in the second half of this series, when a presumably contractually-unrenewed Bitty Schram simply ups and vanishes as of ‘…Red Herring’ and is replaced in her role as Monk’s assistant by Traylor Howard as Natalie Teeger. That Teeger’s husband died six months previously gives the two main characters some common ground that is mined in affecting, brief moments that really feels like two people sharing a form of grieving…and shows that the writers can get it right when they’re paying attention (indeed, it’s the only good part of the otherwise-transparent ‘…Election’).

And, look, it’s not all bad. Shalhoub is wonderful, of course, committing to the character in tiny ways that make all the difference, like waking up from being knocked out and immediately straightening two boxes in front of him, and delivering throwaway lines delightfully (“I don’t even know this woman.”). It’s also lovely to see that the table in Monk’s living room is still wonky, the sort of detail that could easily have gotten lost but carries a particular significance that’s pleasingly not been overlooked. And some of the ideas are clever: the motive in ‘Mr. Monk Meets the Godfather’, which sees a burgeoning gang war in the wake of a mass shooting at a barbershop used as a front by a mobster; the surprising situation that opens ‘Mr. Monk and the Girl Who Cried Wolf’, in which a man who has been stabbed twice vanishes within a minute of collapsing (alas, repeated later to extremely poor effect — an ‘impossible’ crime that’s actually impossible and as such remains unexplained); the Croatian hairbrush in ‘Mr. Monk vs. the Cobra’. Worth noting, too, is that ‘Mr Monk and the Employee of the Month’ continues the theme from season 2’s ‘Mr. Monk and the Three Pies’ of repurposing the Sherlock Holmes canon, this time bearing notable similarities to ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891). That’s not a criticism, and the ideas are updated well, I’m more making a note of it to see if it becomes a recurring theme in the seasons to come.

And, building on this, some episodes are actually pretty good. The reflection on Monk’s tendency — as with any series detective in fiction — to end up in the vicinity of crime over and over again in ‘Mr. Monk Gets Cabin Fever’ folds the discussion of “bad karma” into a mystery that’s actually pretty enjoyable. The dual threads in that episode hints at what the show could be, tying Monk in witness protection after witnessing a shooting into the electrocution of a man by his wife. There’s an element of casting which gives away what’s happening, but it’s a more pleasingly-structured mystery than anything that precedes it, and it contains the best piece of physical comedy in the entire season. Equally, ‘Mr. Monk Gets Stuck in Traffic’ contains a good, particularly brutal double murder and possibly one of the oddest celebrity cameos in TV history when nu metal stalwarts Korn crop up in the midst of it all. Sure, you have to accept Monk obliterating a key piece of evidence, the kind of detail that would thoroughly scupper his chances of ever joining the police again, but it’s a far stronger mystery than most of what we’re served in this tranche.

Pick of the lot might well be ‘Mr. Monk Goes to Vegas’, which contains a piece of bravura fair play which is as devious as it is slightly unfairly presented. How can something be both fair and unfair? Well, you’ll have to watch it to find out, but be prepared to admire some admirably subtle clewing done for the viewers’ sake which takes on extra significance when you watch it back a second time (and, believe me, you’ll want to watch it a second time). It’s so good, it took me three days to realise that it doesn’t even work as presented, but I enjoyed it too much to really mind. It’s a shame that this wasn’t shifted in broadcast order to be the final episode, since series closer ‘Mr. Monk and the Kid’ opens and closes well but then runs out of steam for hours and hours in the middle, dragging out another ‘comedic’ set-piece — Monk performing a ransom drop — to tedious length. It has a lot of heart, and the kid in question is adorable, but the episode spends too long on possibilities that are obviously going to be dismissed, and I guess I just prefer a strong mystery over this sort of thing.

And so…what of Monk? I have memories of some very good episodes indeed from later series, so things must improve, right? Right? There’s so much potential here, not least in the astonishingly slack pacing which just isn’t a feature of the likes of Elementary and Castle and so shows that there’s definite scope to improve things. And, hell, I have all eight series of Monk on DVD — remember DVDs? — so I’ll definitely watch further in due course…I just hope it gets better quickly.

~

Monk on The Invisible Event

  1. Season 1 (2002)
  2. Season 2 (2003-04)
  3. Season 3 (2004-05)

12 thoughts on “#1026: Is This the Start of the Breakdown? – Observable Calibre Decline in Monk Season 3 (2004-05)

  1. Yes, I recently rewatched a chunk of season 3 and was tempted to fast forward fairly often, must admit. But definitely hang on to the DVDs as the versions I was watching (via the Sky NOW channel) were substantially censored, presumably from masters used for daytime TV so all the murders are usually cut out, and reformatted for widescreen (which is very common now but I really hate it).

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    • Yeah, the editing/reformatting of shows for streaming is oddly insidious, isn’t it? Someone will probably come and delete my DVDs one night when I’m asleep. but I’m happy to be behind the times media-wise for now if only because it means I definitely have the original, intended version of certain shows.

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  2. It’s been ages since I watched Monk, but remember slowly interesting when the balance between comedy and mystery of the first seasons became lost in the very hit-and-miss comedy padding. That scene with the jackhammer was the first thing that came to mind when reading the title of this post. Literary running a bad joke into the ground. On the other hand, I remember laughing at the garbage strike episode from a later season in which Monk mails large boxes of his garbage to his psychiatrist.

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    • My memory is that what little I’ve seen of the later series is strong in terms of construction, without the same lagging in pace to really ram home something that would at best raise a wry smile if only done once. Several series still to go, so let’s see how accurate my memory is in this regard…

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  3. I agree that Season 3 is the start of where the show’s quality dips a bit (although I think as a whs the show is still pretty good up to the last couple of seasons.) I think the tumult of Levine, Gray-Stanford, and Schram more or less striking for better pay, and the replacement of Schram because of that, is probably the reason some of the episodes go a bit off the rail. I’m guessing you didn’t like the scene with the gun-toting chimp – which is a shame because it’s my favorite scene in the whole show! Ted Levine put his Buffalo Bill persona to good use there (although the locked room in that episode is really disappointing.)

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    • No, I did enjoy that scene with the monkey — Levine’s dedication to something so openly ridiculous was lovely to see.

      And, yeah, the impossible crime in that episode is so disappointing that it can’t even be classified as an impossible crime. Hell, I had two obvious solutions long before the disappointing third one they rolled out cam into view.

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  4. Though I’m the first to admit that there are several episodes of MONK that I find exceedingly disappointing in terms of their plotting, I don’t feel the series ever showed any consistent downward trajectory in quality. That is, unlike the later works of Carr or Christie, or the later seasons of JONATHAN CREEK, I find MONK to be consistently inconsistent— its graph of quality, IMO, runs to peaks and values through the full run of 8 seasons.

    As for the clueing in something like “Mr. Monk Gets Fired,” I believe that what you’re bemoaning as an absence of proof is actually just what you consider an unsatisfactory level of indication. Because I defy anyone to identify many, if any, plot points in puzzle plot fiction (let alone other Monk episodes) that are ever proven. The genre is almost exclusively characterized by various degrees of abductive reasoning. Even the (actually extremely rare) instances of true deductive elimination of all other possible scenarios are almost always based on premises that have not themselves been proven true. After all, when a lab report confirms the proffered scenario and matches the details of a culprit confession, what mystery writer with any concern for reader interest is going to take the effort to prove that the sources of the forensic data are neither possibly mendacious nor mistaken. I’m not discounting that someone could do so, but I see no reason for such exhaustive thoroughness (and I’ve never seen anyone even distantly approach it in the works of Christie, Carr, Brand, Queen, or Berkeley).

    As illustration, let’s take a work which I know you admire, Carr’s THE BLACK SPECTACLES. If you look over Fell’s solution, you’ll note that it consists almost entirely of answers to various questions of why or why not would someone do something or other (why would Marcus Chesney ask an apparently pointless question? that kind of thing). The uses of the word “would” vastly outnumber those of the word “could” in this chapter, and even most of those “could”s are not literally true. The answers to those questions provided by Fell’s solution are extremely satisfactory in the abductIve sense— they make “sense” of the many odd discrepancies of behavior and evidence, and are quite apparently the “best” answers— but they are by no means the only possible answers. For example, Chesney might have asked the pointless question out of uncharacteristic sloppiness, to obfuscate the importance of other questions, or for myriad other possible reasons of which we know nothing. This applies to nearly other aspect of the case. Yes, a tourist is the most likely person to being a large bag to a shop without being noticed, but a rather stupid or bold killer within the known community might also have done so, and by luck come to the shop on a day when the shopkeeper was particularly distracted or unobservant.

    And even the fact that the culprit has to be the person who handed off and vouched for the authenticity of the falsified film is not necessarily the case. Another person— not among the audience members of the demonstration— might have somehow overheard the planning between Chesney and his two accomplices, somehow switched capsules on Harding without his knowledge (or somehow otherwise effected Chesney’s poisoning), and coshed Emmett after he and Harding had switched back clothes, confident that Harding would still vouch for the authenticity of the film, as to do otherwise would leave him without an alibi for deeds of which he would seem very guilty. I admit that all of my “somehow”s require a great deal of ingenuity to fulfill, but none of them are outside of the realm of possibility— and so all of them together are within the realm of possibility. Even the many discrepancies of attested fact regarding the demonstration could possibly be explained by Marcus Chesney’s theory regarding the unreliability of human observation and memory: some of the witnesses may have just been wrong. Is this likely or very believable? No. But none of it is beyond the realm of possibility. And that’s what required of proof— the elimination of all other possibilities. And the fact that there is no evidence of an outside party overhearing the planning, or that members of the audience have particularly poor observation skills, etc, is immaterial. That’s a matter of abductIve strength or weakness, not a matter of deductive proof. Fell’s solution is no more PROVEN than that the shopkeeper (!) overheard the planning and affected all those other somehows.

    Look at this passage from Brand’s DEATH OF JEZEBEL:

    ‘Why do you say that?’ said Charlesworth, quickly. ‘How do you know that Anderson’s dead? If anything, this gives him a motive to kill—not to get himself killed!’
    ‘Wishful thinking,’ suggested Cockie, eyeing the boy’s face with uneasiness.
    George Exmouth looked terrified. ‘I—I just thought…’

    Neither Charlesworth or Cockrill follow up on this, and it turns out to be true: George just thought (or hoped) that Anderson was dead. And it’s never returned to, because we can believe it. Now look at this made up example:

    ‘You said to look for a man in a tweed jacket. But we never mentioned that Landsworth was wearing a tweed jacket that day. How did you know?’
    ‘Well, he wore that jacket on a lot of days, so I assumed…’

    A little fishy, but certainly a possible truthful answer from a non-culprit. Now take this third one:

    ‘You came directly to this address, 397 East Glossop Street. But Renfrew just moved here three days ago, long after the last time you claim to have had any contact with him. How did you know to come here?’
    ‘I just guessed.’

    Now, nobody in their right mind would buy that answer, and it would be accepted as “proof” of ‘guilty knowledge’ in most whodunits (and by most juries, from what I hear). But what is the actual logical difference between these three scenarios? Only a matter of believability— they are merely three different points on a spectrum of likelihood. That someone simply guesses 397 East Glossop Street is no less possible than that George Exmouth guesses that Anderson is dead, just as it’s no less possible that someone guesses all 8 digits of a winning lottery ticket (which as we know does happen). No less possible, just a helluva lot less likely.

    I’m not denying the possibility of a puzzle plot solution that could be entirely deductively proven. But that has little to do with the works (e.g. The Black Spectacles, Death of Jezebel) we most admire. For true inevitability (I.e. logical inescapability) and a “sense” of inevitability have little or nothing to do with each other and, most importantly, neither one guarantees the other. And it is the latter— which is a matter of abductive strength— that we clearly seek in the genre.

    Even if there is some total deductive proof hidden somewhere among the countless detective novels of history, it’s nowhere to be found in MONK. But, in its best episodes— spread out among all the seasons— I feel there is some very satisfactory examples of abductive reasoning, and sudden retrospective illumination

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  5. That was weird… the paragraph beginning “Even if there is some total deductive proof hidden somewhere among the countless detective novels of history…” was written as the last in my comment, but somehow jumped up to the middle of my discussion of THE BLACK SPECTACLES. It’s not as if my points aren’t hard enough to follow on their own!

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  6. Incidentally, while I totally agree that the jackhammer gag doesn’t work at all, I think I can understand the reason for attempting it. I feel there has been a history of effective repetition humor that is based entirely on the audience’s disbelief that the performers will go back to the well another time. “They just couldn’t!” Is the thought, and when they do, the hilarity does increase. The cough in Monty Python’s Ann Elk routine is the first example that comes to mind. Of course, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “I knew Ann Elk, and you’re no Ann Elk.”

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