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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Monk' on USA Network

Tony Shalhoub begins his eighth and final season as the brilliant but neurotic detective. Tonight's episode doesn't break any new ground, but that's part of its charm.

August 07, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

"Monk" enters its eighth and final season on USA tonight, and whether you think that's a few seasons too many or too few, there is something undeniably stirring about watching Tony Shalhoub's Mr. Monk take his victory lap.

The story of a brilliant San Franciscan catapulted into a life of neuroses and obsessive-compulsive disorder by the tragic, and still unsolved, murder of his wife, not only redefined the network, which now goes by the tag line "characters welcome," it provided a solid and welcome bridge between the old world of television and the new.

Firmly planted between good old-fashioned "Columbo" and post-modern "House" or "The Mentalist," "Monk" is the template from which most of the current modern detectives have been cast -- the hero whose very modern flaws are also his, or her, greatest strength.

With his many fears -- ladybugs, heights, milk, harmonicas and above all germs -- Shalhoub's Monk is a balancing act of contradictions. Equally irritating and endearing, he doesn't just refuse to apologize for his skewed vision of the universe, he uses it to see what others do not. "Monk" is a symbol of the Accept Yourself generation, a genuine post-Oprah detective; if he were a more recent creation, he would have Asperger's syndrome.

But unlike our other emotionally and psychologically challenged detectives, "Monk" plays for laughs and it is a credit to the writers and Shalhoub that the laughter began, and stayed rooted, in a place of empathy rather than satire. Monk is all our fears and phobias writ large, proof that even broken bits can be refashioned into tools.

This no doubt explains why the series has been so successful, because, let's face it, as a detective yarn, the mysteries have always tended toward the lame.

Tonight's season premiere is a case in point. We meet Monk as he is waiting with Natalie (Traylor Howard) outside a bookstore where, come morning, the former child star of his favorite show will be signing her new memoir.

Needless to say, Monk has an encyclopedic knowledge of "The Cooper Clan" ("The Brady Bunch," down to that crazy main staircase), and thinks of its stars as the family he never had. That the Marsha character, Christine Rapp, is played by Elizabeth Perkins should give you the first clue as to how this is going to go down.

Her memoir is a tell-all and Monk, childlike here to the point of absurdity, once again learns the harsh lessons of the depraved and dangerous world around him. Perkins has a perfectly marvelous time with Shalhoub, but nothing happens that you don't see coming pretty much from the moment she shows up on screen.

But then it's "Monk" and it's the final season, and if that means the TV equivalent of mac and cheese, well, who doesn't like mac and cheese? As the season unwinds, there will be certain developments. Sharona (Bitty Schram), Monk's nurse-assistant in the first three seasons, will be back and rumor has it that the murder of Monk's wife will finally be solved, offering the perpetually plagued and bewildered detective some sort of closure and possibly, finally, growth.

So here's to you Mr. Monk, a small and steady light on an often blinding, hyperkinetic screen. In your own quiet way, you have changed our lives and you will be missed.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Monk'

Where: USA

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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