Monk – season seven

cast: Tony Shalhoub, Traylor Howard, Ted Levine, Jason Gray-Stanford, and John Turturro

creator: Andy Breckman

640 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Universal Playback DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Monk – season seven

Far beyond the rain-slicked existential mean streets of noir and the blood-drenched cadaver-strewn pages of populist crime fiction there is a part of the crime genre that will be forever 82. That’s eighty-two! Daytime TV detective series such as Murder, She Wrote, The Father Dowling Mysteries, and Diagnosis Murder, are hugely popular with their elderly fan-bases partly because they all star older actors, but also because they all abide by a very simple and effective formula: take one sympathetic character and insert them into a series of self-contained episodes that feature simple plots, gentle comedy, accessible pathos and the profoundly consolatory idea that there are no crimes that cannot be solved by the right kind of meddling busybody.

For the daytime TV detective, crime is always straightforward and its perpetrators are always easily brought to book. For the daytime TV detective, crime is not an expression of an unjust social system or a product of the inherent savagery of human nature: it is a problem that can be solved in 40 minutes without upsetting anyone. Far beyond the politically engaged realism of The Wire, there is a corner of the crime genre that will be forever nice and, in this corner, Monk is king.

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) is a genius whose intelligence is weighted down by hundreds of neuroses acquired as a result of a traumatic childhood. Trapped by the confines of a truly heroic case of OCD, Monk finds the world to be a little bit too much to bear. Indeed, the only thing that allowed Monk to function well enough to hold down a job as a San Francisco police detective was the love and support of his wife Trudy.

Unsurprisingly, when Trudy was killed, Monk ceased to function. Crushed beneath the weight of his mental illness, Monk lost his job and shut himself away from the world until the SFPD lured him out of seclusion in order to prevent the assassination of a local mayoral candidate. The assassination successfully foiled, Monk took a job as a consultant with the San Francisco police department and set about solving crimes beyond normally constituted detectives. As this season seven begins, Monk and his personal assistant Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard) have acquired quite a reputation, a reputation that seems to attract them as much trouble as it does glory.

Like most daytime TV detective series, Monk does not really go in for plot-arcs or extended continuity – meaning that, having read the above paragraph, you have all the information you need to dive straight in to the series at any point in its (now complete) 125-episode/ eight-season run. Lacking an overarching narrative, there would be little point in my summarising what happens in series seven of Monk and so I shall instead limit myself to a more generalised discussion of the programme’s (undeniable) appeal.

First and foremost, Monk is a very traditional piece of television. Made to fit an hour-long slot on American TV, each episode of Monk lasts about 40 minutes and features the double-plot structure that is common in American film and TV.

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These twin plotlines usually involve Monk’s attempts to solve a crime whilst grappling with some problem relating to his mental illness. An excellent example of this formula is this season’s first episode Mr Monk Buys A House.

Written by series creator Andy Breckman, this episode finds Monk moving to a new home in order to escape the sound of his neighbour practicing the piano. However, unbeknownst to Monk, his new home belonged to a man who was murdered by his carer. As workmen tear his new home apart and Monk comes to realise the reason for the old man’s death, it slowly becomes clear that Monk’s desire to move home may well have been the product of his wanting to escape his psychological problems.

By acquiring a new therapist and confronting his latest fears, Monk reconnects with his past and realises the link between the workmen tearing up his house and the murder of the house’s previous tenant. While the symbolism of the interweaving plotlines (builders break through walls just as Monk has his own breakthroughs) may be uncharacteristically elegant for this series, the juxtaposition of a crime to solve and a personal problem to confront is as typical of the series as the relatively straightforward nature of problems that Monk has to deal with. Indeed, despite Monk being a genius, neither his psychological issues nor the murders he solves are so complex that they are likely to pose much of a challenge to the series’ audience. This is far from accidental.

Part of Monk’s appeal lies in its relentless flattery of its target audience. Again and again, we are reminded that Monk is a towering genius and yet the problems he solves would scarcely trouble your average pensioner, let alone a professional detective. By reminding us that Monk is a genius and by giving him problems that we can solve too, the show is effectively flattering our intelligence: Monk is a genius but we are even smarter than he is!

Another way in which the series panders to its audience is by having its protagonist resemble them. Indeed, while Murder, She Wrote, The Father Dowling Mysteries, and Diagnosis Murder may all feature crime-fighting pensioners; only Monk tells the story of a character whose life genuinely resembles that of an older person. Weighed down by fears, doubts and a variety of weird mental compulsions that make it difficult for him to deal with the realities of 21st century life, Monk lives the sort of awkward and fragile existence common to older people. He even has a carer and struggles with ‘new-fangled’ technology such as the Internet. While Monk may ultimately be little more than lightweight fluff that shamelessly panders to a demographic of which I am not a part, I cannot deny that I enjoyed watching it. You simply have to marvel at a series that does so much with so little!

Chained to a basic structure that never changes and a cast of characters that can never really evolve due to the lack of series-long plot-arcs, Monk’s writers display a remarkable capacity for revisiting the same themes and characters over and over again without the series ever getting tired or repetitive. This feeling of perpetual freshness is due to a number of ingenious strategies:

Firstly, the writers regularly vary the tone of the episodes by alternating the ways in which they portray Monk’s problems. For example, one episode might play his problems for laughs by emphasising the absurdity of a man who cannot eat something that does not possess right angles, while another episode might stress the tragic nature of his affliction or the need for him to grow-up, take responsibility and learn a lesson about the ways in which he treats the people around him.

Equally impressive is the way in which, despite effectively playing mental illness for laughs and pathos, Monk never feels either mean-spirited or condescending. This highly sensitive control of tone is partly the result of sensitive and respectful writing but Shalhoub also deserves a lot of the credit for a performance that imbues a fool with nobility and a paragon with real fragility. Adrian Monk is not always a nice man but he is always intensely sympathetic, and that is no little achievement for an actor and a staff of writers.

Secondly, while most of the episodes take place between the crime scene, Monk’s apartment and the police department, the writers will regularly shake things up by putting Monk in a submarine or a sports stadium thereby opening up a whole new set of psychological problems for him to deal with. There are even times when the writers delve into post-modernity by producing an episode that is framed as a TV documentary about Monk’s life.

Thirdly, while the main cast is quite small by the standards of contemporary TV, the producers frequently inject fresh energy in the form of colourful guest stars who appear either in one-off roles as with comic actor Steve Zahn, and West Wing alumni Richard Schiff and Bradley Whitford, or as recurring secondary characters such as Monk’s Mycroftian brother Ambrose (John Turturro), the obsessive head of his fan club (Sarah Silverman), or Harold (Tim Bagley), Monk’s rival in mental illness.

Combining resourceful plotting with a wonderful lightness of tone and a thoroughly engaging central cast, Monk is a series that can be enjoyed even by those who are not in their eighties. The 16 episodes of season seven are of a generally high standard with the weaker episodes (Mr Monk Gets Hypnotised, and Mr Monk And The Magician) easily counter-balanced by a number of standout successes, such as Mr Monk On Wheels, Mr Monk’s Other Brother, and Mr Monk And The Lady Next Door.