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Television & Radio | TELEVISION REVIEW

Odd 'Monk' ticks into a third season

June 18, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"The highest-rated original scripted series in the history of basic cable" -- a fairly specific superlative, but nothing to sneeze at -- "Monk" begins its third season tonight on the USA Network. (ABC, which declined the show when its corporate bedfellow Touchstone Television originally presented it to them, has aired "repurposed" episodes from the first two seasons, but its plans for the third are unknown.) It's a welcome return.

Starring Tony Shalhoub as a preternaturally brilliant, socially incapable detective who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and a smorgasbord of phobias (heights, germs, airplanes, crowds, milk, and on and on), it is a sunny sort of show -- Monk's manias are played mostly for laughs -- where murders are just crossword puzzles, and easy ones at that.

Its pleasures are all in the predictable eccentricities of its characters, and the fact that it's clearly being staged for our benefit -- that we're watching actors acting -- doesn't lessen one's enjoyment. Quite the reverse.

It's Shalhoub, an Emmy winner last year for actor in a comedy series, who makes the show tick -- or tic -- but he is ably abetted by Bitty Schram as Sharona, his amanuensis, factotum, nurse, caretaker and sleuthing pal; Ted Levine as San Francisco Police Department Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer, regularly constrained to call on Monk for help, as all such police captains in all such series regularly must call on the local superior mind; and Lt. Randall Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford), the captain's comical assistant.

The four constitute a disputative but increasingly supportive little family; they have adventures. (The episode titles, each of which begins with the words "Mr. Monk," recall those of classic crime series, like Charlie Chan and the Thin Man, but also those of the Bobbsey Twins.)

"Mr. Monk Takes Manhattan" begins the new season. It's the bottom half of a cliffhanger: Monk having learned in last season's final episode the name and whereabouts of the man who killed his wife (three years before the series began), he has come with his three companions to ask some questions. It's the practice of the series to throw Monk into colorful scenes and tight spots that will test his self-control -- a circus, a sanitarium, onstage in a play, substitute teaching, Mexico (he brought 18 suitcases full of food, water and pillowcases for that journey). As the capital of overstimulation, New York City makes a perfect nightmare.

Manhattan is cleaner than it used to be, but it's not clean enough for a man for whom a crumpled piece of paper can precipitate an existential crisis. Monk gets lost on the subway, freaks out in Times Square.

At Rockefeller Center, he rushes onto the ice when he spots a girl wearing only one glove -- he hates asymmetry -- and we see him from afar, sliding out of control, knocking over skaters like nine-pins. The sound of a jackhammer forces him to begin the same sentence a dozen times.

At the same time, we are encouraged to regard Monk's abnormal powers of observation, his microscopic attention to detail, all the things that make him a great detective, as part and parcel of his affliction. It's said that the compulsions of the obsessive-compulsive person are strategies to regulate the obsessions -- a means of putting the world in order. Which is just what detectives do, after all, and comedies as well.

*

'Monk'

Where: USA

When: 10-11 p.m. Fridays, beginning tonight

Tony Shalhoub...Adrian Monk

Bitty Schram...Sharona Fleming

Ted Levine...Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer

Jason Gray-Stanford...Lt. Disher

Creators, David Hoberman, Andy Breckman. Executive producers, Hoberman, Breckman, Tony Shalhoub and Randy Zisk.

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