Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thinks Andrew Zimmern would make the ideal guest murderer on Monk.
Our reviews of Monk: Season Two (published August 24th, 2005), Monk: Season Three (published August 24th, 2005), Monk: Season Six (published July 16th, 2008), Monk: Season Seven (published July 27th, 2009), and Monk: Season Eight (published March 16th, 2010) are also available.
Monk: "It seems like Coach Hayden ran into a lot of bad luck in this
room all at once."
Whether you're a regular viewer or not, you probably have an idea what Monk is about. Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub, Big Night), who left the San Francisco police force after a car bomb claimed his wife's life, works as a consultant, solving crimes that his best friend and former boss Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine, Silence of the Lambs) can't crack. Add a dash of character study and gallows humor and mix well for an old-fashioned TV mystery.
Yeah, that would still fit as a basic description of Monk. But if you didn't stick around till Monk: Season Five, you may have missed a few things.
Here's what happened: Monk shifted its emphasis, concentrating on the humor and character-based drama as Monk slowly works his way toward, hopefully, his old job. There are still murders to solve, but they're often secondary. And stories focus less on Monk's obsession with wife Trudy's murder. If you're comparing it to old crime shows, Monk now evokes the quirky Rockford Files more than the cat-and-mouse games of Columbo.
That's a gift…and a curse. I must admit I'd like to see more plots as ingenious as those in earlier seasons, but it's interesting to watch Monk grow as a character.
Facts of the Case
Monk: Season Five contains 16 episodes (with one appearing twice), on four discs:
• "Mr. Monk and the Garbage Strike"
• "Mr. Monk and the Big Game"
• "Mr. Monk Can't See a Thing"
• "Mr. Monk, Private Eye"
• "Mr. Monk Gets A New Shrink"
• "Mr. Monk Goes to a Rock Concert"
• "Mr. Monk Meets His Dad"
• "Mr. Monk and the Leper"
• "Mr. Monk Makes A Friend"
• "Mr Monk Is At Your Service"
• "Mr. Monk Is On The Air"
• "Mr. Monk Visits a Farm"
• "Mr. Monk Goes to the Hospital"
"This is something that I might come close to…almost…enjoying."
That's Adrian Monk on a good day, one in which he shook hands without begging assistant Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard, Son of the Mask) for a wipe (although the way Tony Shalhoub's hand was shaking showed Monk's fear). If you've seen Vertigo, you know that Monk isn't even the first phobic ex-cop detective in San Francisco. However, Shalhoub's Chaplinesque take on the familiar hard-luck hero constantly reminds audiences of the anxieties and painful memories that Monk faces.
The Season Five episode that best lets viewers into Monk's existence is "Mr. Monk and the Garbage Strike." The garbage-strewn streets and sets appear as they would to Monk, and it's surreal; a scene in which garbage tumbles down in the background as Monk talks with his shrink illustrates the obsessive-compulsive detective's fears perfectly. Monk's modest proposal for evacuating San Francisco, burning the city down, and rebuilding sounds pitch-perfect from Tony Shalhoub, even though I couldn't conceive of such a speech from any other fictional character. There's even a hallucinogenic turn as Monk becomes convinced that rock star Alice Cooper (who appears as himself) committed the murder.
"Usually when you say, 'Here's what happened,' it's pretty much what happened," a disappointed Lt. Disher tells Monk after a surprising mistake in "Garbage Strike." That points out another Monk trait that keeps the show going strong. The writers can still come up with fresh twists on a ritual like the "Here's what happened" scene. Even if you've cracked the case yourself—which usually isn't that hard—these playful moments make you look forward to the denouement.
The other high point on Monk: Season Five is "Mr. Monk and the Leper." I liked this one because it had the strongest mystery plot—and it even tied the plot into Monk's phobias.
USA Network ran "Leper" with a gimmick: the episode was shown in both black-and-white and color, as it is on this set. I thought the color version was better, even before the hot-air balloon chase at the end. The angles and camera work came across stylishly in both versions—and the hint of neon or other color in shadowy locations added a little flair. It appeared to me that the transfer looked better on this episode than it did in the original airing, so I'd have to say Universal did a good job on this set.
After "Leper," the most notable mystery story was "Mr. Monk and the Really, Really Dead Guy." Also of note was "Mr. Monk Makes a Friend," which gave Andy Richter a chance to play a cold-blooded killer. Overall, it seemed like the season's plots started off weak, but the mystery stories got stronger after "Leper."
"Why do I have to be so good? Why can't I be a regular detective, like—" Monk wisely stops short before finishing that sentence in the presence of buddy Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer, but it's clear on Monk that the great detective relies on his friends as much as they rely on him.
Stottlemeyer may not be Monk, but he knows when something's wrong with a crime scene, such as when he finds an older woman dead on the stairs even though the elevator she usually took was operating just fine. At times, he seeks Monk's help to help Monk, as when the obsessive-compulsive detective is temporarily blinded and even more depressed than usual. And he can deal with the bumbling Lt. Randall Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford, Flags of our Fathers).
By now the clueless Disher seems more aware of his limitations, at least enough to cover with lines like "Excuse me, I've got to call my mother—my girlfriend" or "I didn't like the way the Ferrari handled—or the way they turned down my credit application." He's still a cop who keeps checking on a suspect after learning that the guy's long dead, though. On the commentary, viewers are reminded that he's a crack cop, but I've always thought that a comic relief character on Monk is redundant.
Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard, Son of the Mask) occasionally notices a dog barking or some other oddity that could yield a clue, but she's usually there to talk Monk into doing something he doesn't want to do. That's not always a good thing—when Monk cluelessly coaches basketball, the frustrated ref takes his whistle—and if she's even distracted for a moment, Monk winds up being chased by a killer, but Monk wouldn't be solving mysteries without a little help from the woman who senses when he wants a wipe, even when he's trying not to show it.
How close are Monk and Natalie? One episode in Monk: Season Five refers to Natalie actually going out with Monk in her few off hours, and Traylor Howard's sweet smile occasionally suggests more than pity for her hapless boss. Her grief as a widow, an undercurrent through some stories, also helps cement their relationship. They could dethrone Mulder and Scully as TV's most pathetic should-be couple.
The commentary on "Mr. Monk and the Leper" wasn't bad, but having numerous voices on there (even the guest actress made an appearance) was confusing. The DVD also includes about seven minutes of "Webisodes"—short comic vignettes in which Monk wreaks havoc. These are slapstick and surreal forays into Mr. Bean territory, without any attempt to ground the character in reality as in the series.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I mentioned that Monk resembles The Rockford Files, with its cast and cases full of oddball characters. The big difference is that James Garner's Jim Rockford was a centered, stable character for the oddballs to riff off. With the troubled Monk at the center of the stories, the shifts of tone from comedy to drama can be abrupt.
The inclusion of the Psych pilot (the short version, not the "international" extended version they've been touting in ads) as an extra suggests that the DVD release of Monk: Season Five is aimed at people who don't subscribe to cable or satellite TV. Even if you're not Adrian Monk, you couldn't have missed all those Psych promos if you'd watched Monk on USA.
If you're one of those cable holdouts and you can wait, Monk goes into broadcast syndication in Fall 2008. On USA, Monk reruns may become as ubiquitous as the various Law and Order shows.
Even with its frequent silliness, Monk can still serve up some suspenseful moments. Even having seen it once, the scene in which a helpless Monk braces for death in "Mr. Monk Goes to the Hospital" still sent a chill up my spine. Monk is no cutting-edge drama, but its focus on Monk's struggles did make room on TV schedules for shows like House M.D. with strong, unusual characters.
Monk: Season Five has two great episodes ("Garbage Strike" and "Leper") and no complete failures. If you're planning an annual catch-up, you won't be let down.
I could be wrong now, but I don't think so. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Episode Commentary on "Mr. Monk and the Leper"
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