Sunday, February 27, 2011

Here's what happened

I recently finished watching "Monk." Um... all of it. I completely missed the show when it was first running; I was vaguely aware of the basic idea (a detective with OCD), but, for example, I had no idea that it was set in San Francisco. My parents fell in love with it, I decided I had to check it out, and, eight seasons later, here I am!

It's a little unusual for me to do this for this kind of show... well, catching up with a whole series after the fact is my favorite way to watch good, modern TV, but I think all the previous examples of mine have been for serialized drama. Watching them late is fine, but they demand to be watched in order to really understand what's happening and get the most out of it.

In contrast, Monk is highly episodic, not serial. There is a sort of over-arching plot, but it's only important at the very beginning of the series and towards the very end. They do try to maintain continuity, but it's much more in the style of, say, "The Simpsons" than "Arrested Development": some characters come and go, but each episode ends with things pretty much where they were at the beginning.

That isn't a criticism, of course, and Monk succeeds in being a terrific show. A lot of this is thanks to Tony Shalhoub, the phenomenal lead role; he nailed Monk early on, and kept up an excellent portrayal throughout. It's a very challenging situation: not only to depict an extreme introvert with a laundry list of personal failings, but to depict a character who fundamentally resists change of any sort, and yet keep him interesting throughout four years. I think that latter bit is what's most impressive: we basically understand everything we need to know about Monk after the first four episodes, and yet we continue to enjoy seeing him time after time.

Shalhoub doesn't hog the spotlight; the show features a small core of dedicated supporting characters. I'll treat these more at length below, but for now, I'll just note that Shalhoub (who was also a producer of the show) is extremely generous. Even though his character is the star, he gives some great moments to all the people around him.

The show is EXTREMELY formulaic. There is always, always, always a murder. Most of the time it occurs before the opening credits, although occasionally the murder comes later. Most of the time Monk is brought on as a consultant to help the San Francisco Police Department solve the crime. The neat twist for this show is that, despite being a murder mystery, it's rarely a whodunit: often they'll show us the murderer before the opening credits, and if not, Monk usually figures it out early on. Rather, the show is a HOWdunit: Monk needs to prove just how the suspect managed to commit the crime.

This leads to a lot of great scripts. One of Monk's many trademark lines is "[S]He's the guy... I don't know how [s]he did it, but [s]he's the guy." Similarly, the suspect often knows that Monk suspects them, and they'll taunt him to prove it. They often have a "perfect" alibi, that seems to make it impossible for them to have committed the crime; Monk's job is to disprove that alibi, and place them at the crime.

There are a couple of instances where this formula gets to be a little repetitive; they rely just a little too heavily on making crimes seem to have occurred at a different time than they actually did. Still, it's a solid angle, and I can't fault them for running with it.

The set design and scenery are gorgeous. After all, this is the Bay Area! I absolutely love all their exterior shots. Some of these are the requisite big-impact shots, like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Transamerica Pyramid. Some of my favorites, though, are the street-level shots: I look at them, and I can't place the exact block, but I know that it's San Francisco. The 20-degree grade, the Victorians with Bay windows, those parking meters... there's no other place where it can be.

The music is quite good. They switch around the opening song fairly early on in the show, and I much prefer the latter, Randy Newman version to the earlier Caribbean-esque tune. The incidental music is fine, not too memorable but well-done.

Hm, let's move on to some


Was it just me, or did they get much less reliant on guest stars as the show went on? I remember seeing Jason Alexander and Kevin Nealon and Willie Nelson and some other kinda-famous folks early on, but that seemed to drop off after the first few seasons. I'm curious if this was mostly a financial decision, or an aesthetic one.

For the most part, I approved of the changes that did happen in the show. As noted above, I like the new theme song way more than the old one. (Sorry, Sarah Silverman!) Also, once I got used to the change, I liked Natalie more than Sharona. Both were good characters, and I did really appreciate how the writers kept them quite distinct; even though they're superficially similar (both are single parents who act as Monk's personal assistant), their personalities are extremely different, and I don't think you could have Natalie fill any of Sharona's scripts or vice versa. That said, Natalie was perkier, cuter, and more empathic, and I really enjoyed the tone she brought to the show.

This was a shorter thing, and I might need to re-watch the beginning to be sure, but I feel like Randy's character shifted the most over the opening episodes. For most of the show he was the clown, comic relief, pure incompetency behind a badge; I think that in the pilot and first few episodes, though, he was a fairly straight supporting man.

Stottlemeyer was fantastic; next to Monk, he was my favorite character. He was world-weary, but in a wry kind of way; he had a great quiet sense of humor, almost never laughing, but you could tell when he was amused. Actually, he probably had the broadest range of emotion of anyone on the show. Unlike Monk, who only emotes within an extremely narrow range, Stottlemeyer can fly into a rage, throw things around, get in peoples' faces... and cuddle with a lover, bond with a son, blow a whistle at a chimpanzee, even cry. I usually felt kind of bad for him; the show put him through a lot, and he lost a lot over the run.

I think that this may be the only television show I've seen, and one of very few pieces of media, to really focus in on the subject of grief. I forget now which episode it was, but there's one show that ends with Monk holding a picture of his dead wife and sobbing uncontrollably. That isn't the sort of thing one sees often, especially on prime-time television. The show also seems to be making an unusually large space available for grief. In much of our media culture, the general message regarding grief tends to be, "It's a natural process, and you should take time to express your emotions at your loss. However, grief is something to be gotten over. You should put it behind you and move on to newer thing in your life." "Monk" explicitly treats this topic, and allows Adrian to defend why, in his particular case, there is no moving on, there is no comfort, there really is no future, just a shadow that lies ahead of him.

I've been lucky enough to have not lost the most important people in my life, but I have lost people I've loved, and I have to say that the "Monk" experience rings true for me. Not that that's how I handle loss, but grief is a very big emotion, a very real emotion, and one can expect it to take years or more to address. And one never really "gets over" it - it may be less crippling and debilitating, but the loss permanently becomes a part of your own life, and in some way it continues to shape the future actions you take and choices you make.


I did appreciate how the show wrapped things up at the end. They seemed to be making a conscious decision to try and provide happy endings for the people we cared about. Randy finally connected with Sharona (and, once again, I'm glad that the writers didn't try to rekindle the Randy/Sharona love/hate dynamic with Natalie). Leland, after a lot of really awful letdowns, met, wooed, and married a good woman. Natalie's situation is left a bit more open, but she saw her daughter accepted to UC Berkeley, and seems to be interested in picking up romance again.

And Monk? That seemed like the trickiest thing of all, finding a way to give him some kind of comfort while still honoring the character's integrity and devotion to Trudy. They find a great way to do this, along the way nicely tying together a bunch of small moments from throughout the show's run (the six-fingered man, Trudy's last present to Adrian, etc.). The transformation the Monk goes through in the last few minutes of the finale is just amazing; throughout the entire show, we've almost never seen him laugh, and now... he's happy! He's laughing! He's changing! He's still an odd guy, still noticeably Monk, but it's so cheering to see him reach his peace.

The daughter makes this all possible, of course. It's the only time that Monk has found a way to let his love for Trudy escape the past. By re-investing that love into her daughter, he can carry her memory forward into the future, remaining devoted to Trudy while finally escaping the rut he's been in.

And, man, what a rut... they didn't dwell on this too much, but it's incredibly dark to think that Adrian wasted so many years with that box under the Christmas tree. At any point, he could have opened it up and solved the case. Even worse, we learn from the video that he was inadvertently thwarting Trudy's wishes the whole time: all along, she had assumed that if she died, he would simply open it and learn what happened. His devotion to her memory was the thing that kept him from solving her murder.

Like I said, they don't dwell on that, and I'm glad for it. Finding an appropriate ending for a long-running TV show is an incredible challenge, and I'm always extremely grateful when the creators find a good way to end it.


That was that! Monk isn't the kind of show I typically watch, but obviously, I liked it plenty enough to watch every single episode. The character-driven quality of the show, and the quality of the characters, make it surprisingly addictive; even though you know the outlines of each episode before you start watching, the level of execution is incredibly high. It's an excellent show. Unless I'm wrong... which, you know, I'm not.

1 comment:

  1. We've just finished Season Two, for the second time!
    Nice recap here, and I love how you've woven in Monkisms. Nicely played.
    Curious on our 2nd pass - we got used to Natalie very fast on our first time through, and didn't think we'd like getting Sharona back. But this time around we are really loving her, Surprising.
    Your post makes me glad we're walking through this again. Whee!