TeeVee Awards '04: Best Hour Actor
Maybe it’s a ballgame, where a batter facing a full count keeps fouling off pitches until the pitcher finally tosses one well outside of the strike zone. And that walk triggers a rally that pushes what turns out to be the deciding run across the plate. Or maybe it’s the point in preparing a meal where you’ve got to decide just how much seasoning to use on that salmon filet. Too much and you overwhelm the flavor of the fish, too little and you and your loved ones will be spending the evening dining on flavorless swill. But on this particular night, you settle on exactly the right amount, and the meal turns out to be one of the best you’ve had in a long time.
It probably didn’t feel like when the batter was spoiling pitch after pitch or you were trying to figure out just how big a pinch of Old Bay seasoning should be, but those seemingly innocuous things wound up playing a big part in the outcome of those events. And it’s like that in pretty much any form of human endeavor — ultimately, the success or failure of most any operation hinges on how well the little things are handled.
Sort of like what Tony Shalhoub does on every episode of Monk.
Pick any episode of the quirky cable TV series about a crime-fighting detective who just happens to suffer from the worst case of obsessive-compulsive disorder in the annals of medicine — we’ll go with “Mr. Monk and the Employee of the Month” just because it’s fresh on the brain — and you’ll find Shalhoub carrying off some subtle business in the background of a scene that further fleshes out and humanizes his lead character. In the “Employee of the Month” episode, Monk investigates a murder at a Wal-Mart-esque mega-store. Poking around the crime scene, he inadvertently steps on some bubble-wrap, popping a few dots on the wrapping; without skipping a beat, Monks picks up the bubble-wrap and begins popping the rest — it all has to be the same, you see — while the scene around him continues.
It’s a funny detail — and one a lot of actors might not bother to even include. Then again, not a lot of actors are as talented as Shalhoub, who inhabits the character of Monk so thoroughly and so convincingly, that his performances come across as effortless and natural as… well… an obsessive-compulsive detective popping bubble-wrap at a crime scene.
The strength of Shalhoub’s performance is crucial to Monk’s success, especially after the novelty of the show has worn off. Monk runs the risk of becoming a one-note character — hey, what uncomfortable situation can we stick this guy in this week — unless you turn the role over to an actor who can add multiple layers to the basic concept. Under Shalhoub’s steady hand, Monk is a character, not a caricature. The depth he provides adds punch to the comic scenes (Monk on a TV game show! Monk forced to eat unappealing and possibly unsanitary appetizers!) and poignancy to the show’s more dramatic moments (Monk still mourning the death of his wife or longing to rejoin the police force).
That’s more important than ever since, as we mentioned when handing this award over to Shalhoub last year, writing is not Monk’s strong suit. Let’s just say that if you’re unable to figure out the whodunit portion of the show before the third commercial break, you had best table that dream of pursuing a career in criminal justice for another time. And the problem of transparent plotting has only gotten worse in more recent episodes.
Maybe that’s why Shalhoub scored a repeat win while facing some fairly tough competition. Anthony LaPaglia turned in a second straight solid season of appropriately understated work on Without a Trace. Vince Curatola — that’s Johnny Sack for those of you scoring at home — inherited the Big Bad Guy role on The Sopranos from Joe Pantoliano (decapitated by Tony Soprano on the show and neutered by the producers of The Handler in real life) and brought his own special brand of menace to the table. Victor Garber deserves whatever acting kudos we can offer for his performance on Alias, as does Jason Priestly for what he did on Tru Calling. (Yes — we are being serious. Without Priestly’s midseason arrival to liven things up, Tru Calling would have been as D.O.A. as the stiffs that out-act Eliza Dushku each week.) And we’d hate to overlook Ian McShane’s performance as cussin’ saloon-keeper Al Swearengen on the potty-mouthed Deadwood — mostly because he’d probably tell us to go fuck ourselves.
The difference is that all of these other actors — OK, not Priestly — receive some sort of back-up, whether it’s from other performers or great writing or a distinct aesthetic. There’s some decent supporting work on Monk — most notably, from Ted Levine, who will one day be able to appear on our TV screens without one of us wisenheimers sniggering about putting the lotion on our skin — but, by and large, Tony Shalhoub is flying solo.
Monk rises or falls as a series based on how Shalhoub performs. And this season, Monk rose because its lead actor continued to deliver the most complete performance on television, thanks in no small part to the attention he pays to the little things — and the big rewards that means for viewers.
Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.
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