It's a jungle out there, disorder and confusion and Judge Patrick Bromley everywhere.
Obsessive. Compulsive. Detective.
Eight seasons. 125 episodes. 32 discs. Over 90 hours of Monk.
Facts of the Case
Meet Adrian Monk (Tony Shaloub, Galaxy Quest), the brilliant, obsessive-compulsive "defective detective." Once a detective with the San Francisco police department, Monk suffered a complete nervous breakdown after the murder of his wife, Trudy, by a car bomb he believes was meant for him. Though suspended from the police force, Monk continues to work as a "consultant" on cases under the 24-hour supervision of a nurse—first Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram, Kissing a Fool), then Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard, Dirty Work). Working with Monk on the SF police force are Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine, Heat) and his bumbling Lt. Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford, Flags of Our Fathers). Monk's mission in life is to be reinstated with the force and to solve his wife's murder—if only he can get past his fear of germs, enclosed spaces, dogs, cracks in the sidewalk, milk, dust, rabbits, mushrooms…you get the idea.
It feels like it's been a long time since we had a really good detective show. TV was littered with hourlong procedurals in the 1970s and even through most of the '80s, but it seems like the genre fell somewhat out of favor in the 1990s. Cop shows were still big (thanks to NYPD Blue and, of course, Cops), but actual mysteries were apparently a thing of the past. Thankfully, there's been a resurgence of detective shows in the 2000s, perhaps in some small part as the result of the success of the USA original series Monk, one of the best detective shows of the last two decades and a worthy successor to the giants like Columbo.
Naturally, a show like this lives or dies by its lead performance, so it's important that Monk be played by an actor as talented and innately likable as Tony Shaloub. It's an incredibly tricky part to play; he's got to be brilliant but kind of crazy, insufferable but lovable. Shaloub never shies away from allowing us to see just how difficult a human being Monk really is—there's no softening him up to win our affections—but, in doing so, also earns a kind of respect. It's the kind of character and performance that can successfully sustain eight seasons' worth of television. During the years that I wasn't watching Monk, I would grow frustrated watching Tony Shaloub rack up Emmy after Emmy for his work on the show. Now, as a fan of the series, I can say that I get it.
What Monk gets that a lot of other detective shows don't quite seem to understand (and which I would accuse Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes of coming up short as well) is that for a series like this to work, you have to have good mysteries. Strong characters and clever dialogue are great, but they'll only get you so far; at the end of the day, audiences have to be both engaged by the mystery and pleasantly surprised with the solution. Often times Monk, like Columbo before it, will give away the identity of the murderer in the opening scene (the show typically opens with the crime being committed). That means that it's less about figuring out whodunit than it is about enjoying the way Monk arrives at his conclusion, and I have to give it to the writers of Monk for coming up with really clever ways of having Monk figure things out and for almost always playing fair.
Season Three is where the show first begins showing signs of wear—or, at least, of reinvention perhaps not for the better. A large part of that is due to Monk's most significant casting change: the departure of Bitty Schram's Sharona and her subsequent replacement with Traylor Howard as Natalie Teeger. It's not that Howard is bad or even unwelcome, but the switch changes the energy of the show; whereas Monk's relationship with Sharona was contentiously energetic and, yes, a little broad, his exchanges with Natalie are more subdued and even rational. That means the series has to go elsewhere for comic energy, and occasionally compensates by overdoing the manic nature of the mysteries themselves (more on that in a bit). Eventually, Howard and Shaloub settle into a comfortable rhythm, and by Season Five or so, you pretty much forget that Sharona ever even existed (until, of course, she returns in a welcome guest appearance during the final season). And though Howard isn't ever bad in the role—I like that she, as a widow, knows what it's like to lose the one you love—she's a bit bland, requiring Shaloub to step up his game and carry the show even more than he originally had been. Luckily, he's more than up to the task.
It's more than just that change in personnel, though. The end of Seaosn Two and the start of Season Three is right around the time when Monk begins messing with its formula and pushing the limits of what it can get away with. For the first season and a half or so, the show was simply about a troubled detective called in to help solve cases in San Francisco. Either the writers began to feel like that had become too familiar or simply wanted to branch out and write different kinds of stories, because eventually they begin sending Monk on more and more wacky "adventures." He goes undercover in prison (umm, no) or flies out to Las Vegas (in what is otherwise a very enjoyable episode) or travels to California to appear on a game show or enters the "world" of the mafia or high fashion or joins a cult or is accused of murder and goes on the run. I get that the writers of the show get a kick out of seeing Monk interact with wildly different groups of people—they want to see him be the fish out of water—but that, as my friend John would say, is "painting a mustache" on it. Monk is a fish out of water everywhere, whether it's in normal interaction at the bank or even within the police department for which he works. Sending him out on cartoonish adventures just feels a little desperate, like the writers threw darts at an idea board and this is what they came up with. Monk works better when he's solving everyday mysteries and is grounded in reality.
I'd be remiss, though, if I didn't mention "Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine," the high point of Season Three and one of the best episodes of the series. Not only does it afford Shaloub the opportunity to be really, really funny (Monk takes some behavior modifying drugs that strip away his OCD and make him insufferably laid back, referring to himself as only "The Monk"), but presents and important piece to the puzzle that is Adrian Monk: he is not, as we might assume, a prisoner of his own obsessions and compulsions. They are part of what defines him, and he knows that. They make him a great detective. They make him who he is, and, given the choice, Monk would rather be himself—OCD and all. Combined with several moving scenes of Monk clinging to his wife's pillow and inhaling its smell (he's sealed it in plastic so it retains the scent of her shampoo), the episode is one of the best examples of the way that Monk can combine comedy, drama and true attention to character in its best moments. There are a number of those kinds of episodes going forward beyond the third season—enough to keep the show always compelling and endlessly watchable—but more and more they're mixed in with the broader kinds of shows that I could just as easily do without.
Of course, "Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine" speaks to the most singularly important piece of mythology that serves as the connective tissue from show to show: the loss of Monk's wife and his desire to solve her murder. It's the show's major source of continuity, though it remains in the background for the first few seasons and slowly builds over the course of the series as Monk discovers new pieces to the puzzle. To be honest, it's hardly the show's most compelling mystery, but Tony Shaloub sells the hell out of it; his obvious grief and near-obsessive (I mean that in a good way) love for his deceased wife is such an important part of the engine driving the show that I find the story line working even when it shouldn't. It helps that the conclusion is satisfactory, and a fitting way to close out the series as a whole. It eases the bittersweet sadness of having to say goodbye to Monk somewhat to know that the character is at peace.
I'll say this for the packaging of Monk: The Complete Series: it's one of the best I've seen for a series box. Typically, the way that entire shows are put together for a "complete series" release is a dealbreaker for me; they're big and bulky or gimmicky or ostentatious, and I like all of my discs to match on the shelf (because I have more in common with Mr. Monk than I care to confess). The eight seasons of Monk come packaged in a relatively slim white box, but for those of us who aren't crazy about that, the box actually folds in the center and creates a collection of eight standard keepcases that will fit in nicely with the rest of the discs on your shelf. Thank you, Universal, for giving us options. It's things like this that help me sleep at night.
As for the presentation of the shows themselves? You're not going to get anything different than on the previous Monk season sets. The episodes are presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer that looks decent but not great; I noticed a fairly significant amount of compression noise and blocking, but it was nothing that would detract from my enjoyment of the show. It's not up to the impressive visual standards of more cinematic shows like Lost or 24, but that's OK—this isn't that kind of show. The standard stereo soundtrack services the show nicely but does nothing extra, while optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing may help clear some things up (Spanish subtitles are also included, but only on the first three seasons; French on the first two). The same goes for bonus content; whereas a "complete series" box will often include some new features to entice viewers to make an upgrade, Monk: The Complete Series adds only a 32-page booklet called "An Obsessive's Guide to Monk" that's pretty worthless. It doesn't offer any behind-the-scenes information about the show, just a bunch of pictures, quotes and a list of Monk's phobias. There's nothing here that couldn't be learned from watching the whole show, which is ostensibly what those of us who own The Complete Series are doing.
Otherwise, all of the extra features have just been carried over from the previous season-length sets: featurettes, interviews, character profiles (which are really just more interviews), audio and video commentaries with the cast and crew (though the first one doesn't show up until five seasons in) and a few short Monk webisodes featuring Shaloub in character. To be honest, very few of the special features are all that worthwhile even for a fan of the show; the commentaries offer some interesting tidbits (particularly in the final season), but too many of the featurettes and interviews are standard EPK-type pieces with the cast. I guess that's OK, as long as you know what you're in for. With Monk, you'd better be in it for the shows themselves.
It practically goes without saying that if you've already been collecting the Monk season-length box sets, there's absolutely no reason to even consider upgrading to The Complete Series (unless you're just dying to get your hands on the "Obsessive's Guide," in which case I don't want to know you). Even if you're just a casual fan, there's probably too much show and too much of a cost to invest in all eight seasons at one time. If you're a big fan, however, and know that you'll want to get through every episode at some point, The Complete Series makes economic sense both in terms of money and shelf space. I'm not sure Monk is the kind of show that compels you to plow through show after show, but it might be nice to know you've got over 100 really fun and entertaining mysteries just waiting for a rainy day when nothing else is on.
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