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TV / HOWARD ROSENBERG

A sleuth who fidgets his way to the bad guys

October 18, 2002|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"We don't like to be touched"

-- Sharona Fleming

speaking for her obsessive-compulsive boss, Adrian Monk.

*

Americans are hearing continually about terror in the Washington, D.C., area. And as always in such matters, TV news is wildly and irresponsibly on the loose, too, providing a turnstile for speculating heads who spew rumors unchecked.

This would not be happening had the nation's best detective attended to this from the start. No time for major fright or media frenzy when a murder case is solved in 45 minutes, plus commercials, by Adrian Monk.

The hero of "Monk" -- which is ending a delectable first season on cable's USA Network tonight while rerunning Thursdays on ABC in advance of the delayed new "Dinotopia" -- would wrap up the mystery pronto. His powers of observation and detection are that stunning.

Monk: "You and your wife are having problems, sir?"

Startled suspect: "Why would you say that?"

Monk: "You're not sleeping in the same room. There's a travel alarm on the end table and some slippers under the couch."

Eat your heart out, Sherlock.

Monk is hardly wrinkle-free as an occasional consultant nailing murderers who stump his ex-colleague, Capt. Stottlemeyer, in San Francisco, where Monk was renowned until losing his cop badge when messed up emotionally by the slaying of his wife, Trudy.

Played flawlessly by Tony Shalhoub -- famous as the cabby on NBC's "Wings" before acclaimed roles in such films as "Big Night" and "The Man Who Wasn't There" -- Monk has this, er, problem that requires a bit of maintenance.

It's called severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Monk longs to get back his badge, but fat chance. Proceeding with boundless angst, speaking with whispery softness and walking like a meek trespasser, he is unique in a vast constellation of crime busters. He is TV's most original sleuth ever (apologies to Morse, Columbo, Kojak, Poirot, Nero Wolfe, ABC's Andy Sipowicz and FX's rogue cop, Vic Mackey) by reason of his many phobias.

He is incapable of making even trivial decisions, but carries neatness and orderliness to exotic extremes.

He shrank from eating recently when seeing no separation between food items on his plate. When entering a chaotic murder scene in one episode, his first impulse was to straighten the lamps. In another, when a ceiling crashed down and knocked him to the floor, he called for a broom while still dazed and on his stomach.

He fears the dark, requiring a five-watt (no other wattage will do) night light for sleeping.

He fears heights. "I can assure you ... that this particular aircraft has an excellent safety record," an airline employee promises him tonight when circumstances force Monk to fly with his complaining but devoted and protective nurse-assistant Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram).

"Can I see it?" Monk asks.

He fears milk and germs, showering three times a day with a star-shaped nozzle, sterilizing his toothbrush in boiling water and storing even his socks in individual plastic bags.

Before boarding tonight (it's his first flight), he asks when the jet was last disinfected. Strapped into his seat, he wonders aloud, "How can we be sure we have the best people sitting near the exits?"

He also fears crowds. And physical contact, when someone brazenly shakes his hand? Crisis city. Out come the moist towelettes that Sharona stashes in her bag for Monk's bacteria-driven panic attacks.

There is nothing laughable about obsessive-compulsive disorder. In that regard, the roots of Monk's pain, gnarled emotions and fragility -- underplayed with delicate nuance by Shalhoub -- are addressed with sensitivity, his haunting fixation on Trudy with tenderness.

His symptoms, and how he loosens their grip just long enough to nab killers, generate most of the humor.

It helps that Shalhoub is fidgety, neurotic perfection in this comedy-mystery and that Schram is jolly fun as a gaudy single mother with attitude. In fact, "Monk" is such a glorious kick and this pair so grand together that USA has picked up the Andy Breckman-created series for a second summer season, in 2003, and last week granted its fans a Sunday-long Monkathon.

The show's average weekly audience of 4.5 million on USA is golden for basic cable. And though its 6.7 million ABC viewers last week placed it in the bottom third of prime-time ratings compiled for broadcast networks by Nielsen Media Research, combining these audience totals bodes well for character-driven "Monk."

Plots are simplistic, but Monk, in particular, is meticulously written. His bumbles evoke other famous detectives. Yet differing from slobby Columbo, whose foibles were a ruse, Monk's personality tics are real. And unlike French clown Clouseau, who couldn't find a fly on his nose, Monk is brilliant, his sleuthing instincts triumphing over his phobias, his face hardening and sad eyes turning accusatory when it's time to expose guilt.

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