Friday, March 30, 2012

Our Friday Night Tradition Had A Much Rockier Start Than I Would Have Guessed: Monk - Season One

The Good: Interesting cases, Moments of humor, Performances!
The Bad: Narrative style, Unlikable characters, Not as funny as it became.
The Basics: Monk Season One is much more of a detective show than a comedy, which was a bit off-putting to a fan who came to the series late.

Not very long ago, my wife and I started watching Psych together on DVD (season four is reviewed here!). The more we went through the series, the more my wife lamented how much she missed watching Monk. As if the local gods of television heard her, one of our local broadcast channels began playing Monk in syndication on Friday nights. Watching Monk has rapidly become a Friday night tradition for her and I. But here at the outset of my Monk reviews, I must make two confessions. First, I still like Psych better. Second, because we started with episodes where Natalie was Monk’s assistant, I find I like her quite a bit more than Sharona. In fact, I am not a fan of Sharona. As a result, I was not entirely grabbed by the first season of Monk.

In fact, Monk Season One is a debut season that leaves me surprised that the show was ever picked up for anything beyond the first season. Monk falls into a category of television shows that I am not traditionally bowled over by. Like Bones, House, Pushing Daisies and many other shows, Monk is a ridiculously simple concept that has a lot of plot repetition. In this case, the simple concept is “obsessive-compulsive police detective” and the season is largely episodic in nature. As a result, former Detective Adrian Monk does not grow, develop and learn. Instead, he simply experiences the next case and the next one after that. That does not mean it is bad, but as one who likes serialized television and characters who grow and change, formula shows tend not to impress me.

Before a pile-on of comments begins, watching Monk at the beginning, there are some serious problems with the show. The first is that the show is not funny. While Adrian Monk is quirky, he often comes across as insensitive or just mean and Sharona comes across as a terrible healthcare worker. While Monk is certainly demanding, Sharona does not seem well-suited to the job of being sympathetic. Instead, she pushes Monk and Monk seems more belligerent than emotionally damaged.

As well, the formulaic nature of the episodes in the first season of Monk works against the show as well. Each episode of Monk is a murder mystery but in the first season, the perpetrator of the crime is usually revealed in the episode’s teaser. As a result, the mysteries are more about how Monk figures out how the killer murdered their victim, as opposed to who actually did the crime. This works (when it does) when the viewer cares about the protagonist, but because so many of the characters are uninteresting or unlikable, it is hard to care about the process by which Monk solves a case. Throughout the first season, I found myself screaming at the television, “Tell – insert name here – Monk suffers from OCD!” So many problems and misunderstandings in the first season could have been avoided simply by having Sharona tell people that (usually when she hands Monk a wipe after he shakes someone’s hand).

In the first season of Monk, former detective Adrian Monk is brought in to help the San Francisco Police Department, under Captain Leland Stottlemeyer, solve the murder of a mayoral candidate’s bodyguard. When a psychic finds a dead body in a car, Monk and Sharona are called in, as they are when the loathsome Dale The Whale commissions a murder from his bed. Stottlemeyer calls on Monk when one of his friends is accused of murder and Monk seems right at home when he is committed to an asylum after blacking out and entering Trudy’s (his murdered wife) old house.

Other cases have Monk matching wits with a murderer whose alibi is that he was running a heavily-monitored race and one where a billionaire seems to get his thrills by mugging people for show when he gets shot himself! A normal vacation with Sharona and her son turns into an investigation when Sharona’s son, Benji witnesses a murder. Monk also matches wits with a killer who uses an earthquake to try to get away with murder, saves Willie Nelson from jail and tries to solve a murder while on his first airplane flight!

The first season of Monk establishes the characters, but it does not develop them very well at all. For instance, almost nothing is known about Lieutenant Disher after the first season. He is Stottlemeyer’s right hand, but he does not seem particularly insightful, intelligent or even competent. While he is young, it seems odd that he would have risen to the rank of lieutenant without illustrating some initiative and intelligence of his own. Instead, he does what Stottlemeyer tells him and he usually just pals around as a recurring support character. Even Stottlemeyer lacks a strong sense of presence in the first season. He does not have an absolute trust for Monk and he does not have any distinct traits that make him interesting to watch. Even the fact that Sharona has a child seems only thrown in to enhance her otherwise un-noteworthy character.

To be fair, Tony Shaloub is excellent as Monk, even in the beginning. He seems to have a grasp on balancing a character who is both incredibly intelligent and essentially crippled from his psychological issues. Shaloub plays Monk a serious and troublingly deficient in the first season, as opposed to funny. So, for example, when Shaloub faces off against Alan Arkin’s Dale Biederbeck, the episode has a sinister undertone. Shaloub plays Monk as consistently on edge in the episode and that level of performance makes the first season bearable, if not wonderful.

On DVD, Monk Season one comes with minimal bonus features. There are a few commentary tracks and featurettes on the making of the show and season recaps, but nothing one cannot live without. Monk is clearly a show that got better (much better!) with age, but I’d opt for skipping the first season and picking the show up when it gets more refined.

For other shows that have somewhat formulaic natures, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Boston Legal


For other television reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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