Make no mistake: USA's new detective series Monk is not groundbreaking television. The mysteries are of the Murder, She Wrote or Columbo variety, the supporting cast is littered with stereotypes and scene-chewers, and the dialogue tends to be clever but never quite approaches brilliant. It's a solid show with little to distinguish it aside from its leading man. In this case, that's enough.
Shalhoub -- a much better actor than his co-star status on Wings would indicate -- never milks Monk's afflictions for a cheap laugh. When circumstances force Monk to face his fears again and again, we see the horror in his eyes. Whether it's his vapor-locked arms clinging to a ladder or a frozen smile as he endures a lengthy two-handed handshake, there's never any sense that the show is telling you to laugh, point, and shout, "Look at the freak!"
Instead, Shalhoub makes us mix our humor at Monk's troubled circumstances with some real sadness for a man for whom "normal life" is barely a memory. It's a deeply sympathetic performance, one that suggests that we've all got our own little quirks, and that the only difference between Monk and ourselves is one of degree. Of course, that just makes it funnier.
Shalhoub is also able to shuttle effortlessly between the two wildly divergent aspects of his character: the cool, confident, Holmesian master of deduction who can tell exactly where a carjacking/murder occurred just by looking at the windshield; and the walking bundle of issues who refuses to take a closer look at the same windshield because he's wearing the wrong shoes. Watching a lesser actor in the role would force audiences to change the channel to avoid whiplash, but Shalhoub makes it work.
Ostensibly Monk is a mystery series, but the most enjoyable scenes are the ones where the plot becomes secondary to character development. A scene in which Monk temporarily loses a small but vital piece of evidence in a hardware store advances the plot not one iota, but it's worth it just to see how he and Sharona deal with the situation.
A show with such a unique lead character runs the risk of reducing its supporting cast to one dimension. To their credit, Shalhoub's fellow actors do their best to resist the script's tendency to try and cram them into cubbyholes. As Monk's nurse/Watson, Bitty Schram invests her character with more personality than one might expect from the well-worn brassy-single-mom template. She regards Monk with exasperation and admiration, frequently at the same time.
A considerably more thankless job goes to Ted Levine. Wearing a Harvey Keitel moustache in a vain attempt to minimize associations with his role as the serial killer who wasn't Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs," Levine plays Police Captain Stottlemeyer, a man whose primary function appears to be getting embarrassed by Monk in as many ways as possible. After only two episodes, Stottlemeyer had already evinced an insatiable appetite for dismissing Monk's theories so he can later, inevitably, be proved wrong. Echoing just about every detective-versus-procedure movie and TV show, it's a routine that gets old fast.
Monk's first season will consist of thirteen episodes, including the excellent two-hour pilot that USA broadcast incessantly during the middle of July. From here, the show could go in a couple of directions. Monk's dependent relationship with Sharona could evolve to another stage. He could start to make real progress at overcoming some of his challenges. He could even solve the one mystery that appears unsolvable: the murder of his wife.
Or the show could go on in the same pattern, week after week, until it becomes Encyclopedia Brown meets Rain Man. Chances are it'll end up somewhere between those two show-killing extremes. Either way, it'll probably be worth it to watch Tony Shalhoub embodying the brave struggle of everyone who has ever had to stare down a legion of personal demons day after day. Especially if he keeps doing things like draping napkins over ladder rungs, because that's some funny stuff right there.
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