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Cautiously, he's back on the scent

June 20, 2003|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It's no wonder that mysteries endure in popular literature.

P.D. James, the transcendent British detective novelist, believes these stories satisfy "some of the most fundamental needs of the human psyche, providing reassurance, catharsis, and affirmation of our cherished belief that we live in a rational and moral universe."

Then -- bag the deep-think -- there's "Monk," which is flat-out fun. Case closed.

How grand, how fresh and original "Monk" is while flourishing as light entertainment with undertones of intrigue and enigma. It opens its second season on cable's USA Network tonight, again presenting Tony Shalhoub in a hybrid of crime and comedy whose obsessive-compulsive protagonist racks up as many personal crises and big laughs as arcane clues. A crackerjack detective who is terrified of germs, shrinks from physical contact, is severely challenged by minutiae and won't eat his dinner if the carrots and potatoes touch? A nemesis of arch-criminals who falls all apart if he doesn't have access to moist towelettes? Get out!

Although Americans have a fat archive of vibrant mystery writers, the British have made this milieu their own on TV, planting the Union Jack on more than 23 years of "Mystery!," for example, an oasis for seductive whodunits that PBS is phasing out (sob) as an expression of Anglophilia.

The Brits dunit proud. They've every right to crow about their adapted-for-TV detectives, from Jeremy Brett's fastidious, tightly coiled Sherlock Holmes to Roy Marsden's masterfully embodied Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh, James' humane, straight-arrow poster boy for the new Scotland Yard.

Yet it's Shalhoub's bent-arrow -- U.S.-bred Adrian Monk -- who is this century's most distinctive TV sleuth, at once formidable and fragile, an endearing San Francisco curiosity who deconstructs intricate homicides that baffle the police, despite being an angst-ridden mess encumbered by personality tics galore.

Humor aside, his eyes read tortured and sad. And it's no small challenge, in both the writing and the acting, to mock the man and his personal dysfunction without ridiculing the affliction and the pain it produces. From his soulful gaze to his wobbly, whispery voice to his tenuous gait, though, that fine, versatile actor Shalhoub is as delicate here as butterfly wings.

"I wasn't sure I would be able to make it work and how I would solve the problem of marrying the dramatic element to the comedic element," Shalhoub said recently about turning the role down when it was first offered. "That seemed so daunting."

He changed his mind when his manager "pointed out that I was more like this character than I wanted to admit" and when learning the pilot would be directed by well-regarded Dean Parisot, with whom he had worked in the film comedy "Galaxy Quest."

Although Monk is definitely high IQ, Shalhoub sees in him a lot of Chance, the simpleton green thumb of Jerzy Kosinski's novel "Being There," who was portrayed on the big screen by Peter Sellers. Chance is transfixed by TV when not tending a garden, and becomes a sort of UFO when forced from this environment.

"There's a certain childlike quality to both characters and a different sort of vision," Shalhoub said. "And when Monk walks out of his apartment, he's, in a sense, in a strange land."

That strangeness continues in 2003. Expect a new Randy Newman theme and other minor changes from last season, when "Monk" sneaked up on TV connoisseurs unheralded, becoming a cult favorite and then widening its popularity with reruns on ABC, which had rejected the series before it landed on USA.

It's shot in Los Angeles now instead of Toronto, and Shalhoub is now an executive producer, along with David Hoberman, who created "Monk," and Andy Breckman, the writer largely responsible for its uniqueness in prime time's vast constellation of look-alikes (his brother David wrote tonight's episode).

TV's most memorable detectives are often eccentric, from mincing, dust-free Hercule Poirot to shabby Lt. Columbo. Yet only Fitz, Robbie Coltrane's boozing, gambling, philandering, arrogant cop psychologist in the Brits' mothballed "Cracker," was as blotched in his private life as the hero of "Monk."

Monk is a collection of fears, a troubled, emotionally gnarled, crime-solving savant who works through his phobias and repetitive, ritualized behaviors when it matters most.

His eye-to-brain processing is remarkable, his powers of observation acute, even Holmesian. Tonight he deduces from the indentation in a man's wallet that he's an extramarital gadabout who hides his wedding ring there when courting other women.

Although one needn't be Monk to detect plot holes here, they're inconsequential in a character-driven hour. Think of Monk as a timid, walks-on-eggshells, tied-into-knots Sherlock tormented by his suffocating neuroses. And think of his miniskirted nurse-handler, Sharona (played to the gaudy, joyful, delightful hilt by Bitty Schram), as Watson with an attitude. Even while clashing, they're a perfect symbiosis.

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