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Wednesday August 6, 2008

Quiet success

Monk’s appeal lies in its good script, great cast and a strong leading character, of course.

After six seasons, I think it can be safely said that there is no detective quite like Adrian Monk on the tube. Star of the TV series Monk, Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub), is an ex-police detective (he was discharged from the San Fransisco Police Department after suffering a breakdown following the murder of his wife Trudy, the love of his life.

His breakdown left him with a whole horde of phobias (heights, crowds, physical contact with people, frogs, clouds, milk) and turned him into an obsessive compulsive germophobe.

The show clearly centres around Tony Shalhoub’s Monk.

He does not shake hands with people, he hates to be hugged, he is freakishly anal about order: everything has to be neat and arranged in order, in sequence at the same angles ... you get the picture.

But, along with his neurosis, it has also heightened his investigative capabilities. Always a good cop, Monk seems even sharper now.

As a result, though not on the force, Monk is often called upon by the police captain, Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine), to consult on cases because of his superior deductive skills.

Using instinct and a keen sense of observation, Monk notices minor anomalies in a crime scene that often goes unnoticed by everyone else: the way the curtains are drawn, the way a book is arranged on the bookshelf or even the position of a chair in the room.

Often called upon for seemingly impossible-to-solve cases, Monk does not need a high-tech team of crime scene investigators to help him. All he needs is his trusty assistant/nurse (first Bitty Schram as Sharona and later Traylor Howard as Natalie Teeger) who helps organise his schedule, drives him around (he can’t drive since the tragedy of his wife) and hands him his wet wipes which he uses every time his hands come in contact with anything.

His ultimate aim is to get back into the force: he is committed to police work and cleaning up the city even if he has to spend a fortune on wet wipes to get it done.

He is undergoing therapy and though he has made some progress in dealing with his psychosis, Monk has yet to be certified as competent enough to rejoin the force.

Now although each episode revolves around a murder mystery, the show clearly centres around Shalhoub’s Monk. The mystery part of the series is engaging (think Magnum P.I or Jake and the Fatman), but the cases are pretty basic; the draw is, without a doubt, its leading character.

Shahloub’s portrayal of Monk’s idiosyncrasies is amazing, hence his three Emmys and a Golden Globe. His interpretation of the character: from the nervous movements, the soft voice, the awkward gestures, is done to perfection. It is comical but it’s not ridiculous and is almost always believable.

A stage actor as well, Shalhoub was best known for supporting roles on TV before landing the lead role on Monk. If you are a 30-something (or an early TV watching 20-something) you may remember him as the funny Italian janitor, Antonio Scarpacci, on the comedy series, Wings, in the early 1990s. Though a supporting character, he often stole the spotlight away from the leads, Tim Daly and Steven Weber, even then.

I was late in coming to appreciate the appeal of the series and as such only got into it in Season Three. Unlike many series that struggle to keep the momentum going season after season, Monk managed to introduce new elements to keep it fresh.

New idiosyncrasies of its lead character to make you go ... “What? You gotta be kidding”, a great screenplay that’s funny without being cheesy and of course a leading man who has managed to not just maintain but develop his character and bring him to new heights.

So, as you may guess, I was looking forward to Season Six, where Monk is supposed to try to overcome his phobias.

In the season opener Monk and His Biggest Fan, Monk and Captain Leland take part in a police charity function in which they are auctioned to a group of women.

To Monk’s dismay, he is “bought” by Marcy Maven (Sarah Silverman) a crazed fan of his who appeared in Season Two of the series. Maven’s neighbour accuses her dog of mauling his wife to death (even though the dog died before the murder was supposed to have taken place). Maven begs Monk to prove her dead dog’s innocence. It may sound ridiculous, but it is a strong season opener. Other episodes are equally funny: like the episode in which Monk accuses Captain Stottlemeyer’s new girlfriend of murder, or the story about Monk taking a job as a bank security guard to catch a robber.

Season Six also tries to develop the human side to Monk. In Mr Monk and the Birds and the Bees, the detective’s assistant Natalie forces him to overcome his fear of intimacy by talking to her daughter Julie about true love and “the birds and the bees”.

Its hilarious watching Monk trying to bluff his way out of the situation, failing, and ending up helping Julie and himself ... he is forced to speak about Trudy and get some of his feelings out in the open.

Before it gets all mushy, the crazy returns and all’s well that ends well. The most dramatic episode has got to be when Monk confronts his wife’s killer.

As is usual with the series, there are plenty of cameos and guest appearances in Season Six. In the past, we’ve seen Andrew McCarthy, Willie Nelson, Jason Alexander, Carmen Electra, Korn and Brad Garrett, among many others.

This season we have Snoop Dogg, Alfred Molina and Howie Mandel. They add to the show but the spotlight stays rooted on Shalhoub, always.

Shalhoub is not a hunk. In real life and as Monk, he looks a bit of a nerd, really. But still he has won the hearts of millions. Monk proves all it takes is a good script, great cast and a strong leading character for a series to excel.

Season Six of Monk is currently airing on Star World (Astro channel 711) at 11pm on Mondays.