Monday, April 23, 2012

With Its One-Disc Pilot Episode Monk Illustrates A Worthy Detective, And An Unremarkable DVD.

The Good: Good acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: No DVD bonus features, Pretty standard detective plot
The Basics: With the "Premiere Episode" release of Monk, an interesting character is created who walks through all of the conceits of the detective series in his first outing.

All detective shows are essentially the same. There, I've said it and committed the ultimate blasphemy to fans of the mystery genre. Objective viewers or readers - little is changed between mystery books and television shows - may easily acknowledge the truth of that argument, but for fans of the genre, it's enough to make me a pariah. And yet, it is true. The only things that differentiate the calibers of detective stories are the characters involved and the level of case being investigated. In other words, it's the characters that make the series and in detective/mystery series' it's the defining factor of what makes for worthwhile vs. passe entertainment.

What separates NYPD Blue from Law & Order from Kojak from Monk is all in the character work and the level of crimes being committed. With NYPD Blue, we have a team of police detectives who week after week are led by the gruff and damaged Andy Sipowicz on cases that help common people right the wrongs done to them. With Monk, we have Adrian Monk, a brilliant loner suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder solving crimes in San Francisco. Presented as a no-frills DVD, the pilot episode of Monk, “Monk: The Premiere Episode" is another in a collection of DVDs that seem to be all about luring in a new audience using inexpensive DVDs.

Adrian Monk, obsessed with whether or not the oven has been turned off back at home, is consulting on a murder investigation of a young woman when there is an assassination attempt made on the campaigning mayor. Killed in the crossfire is a bodyguard and when Monk notices some similarities in the higher profile case, he is brought in to consult on the slaying of the mayor's bodyguard. Encouraged by his nurse, Sharona, who is frustrated by how much time and attention handling Monk demands of her Monk begins pursuing his own leads that connect the murdered woman and the dead bodyguard, potentially implicating the mayor, his opponent, his wife and virtually every member of his staff!

Along the way, Adrian Monk is thrust into circumstances that make him uncomfortable and expose his social awkwardness. Meeting with the mayor's wife, he encounters a school full of young children which is basically a hell on earth for the germaphobe. He knocks over a strategic map with hundreds of color-coded pins only to be able to replace all of them exactly based on the single glance he had at the board prior to knocking it over. And, because this is a pilot episode where the purpose is to establish as much in the way of characterization as possible, he ends up on a pole, paralyzed by a fear of heights.

Monk - The Premiere Episode falls into virtually all of the obvious character conceits for establishing a character and a series. Adrian Monk is instantly created as one of the most quirky, brilliant and distinctive detectives since Colombo. He is characterized as suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder stemming from the unsolved murder of his wife, which instantly raises the intriguing character possibility that at some point, Monk could be cured and lose his distinctive qualities! After all, if all that separates Monk and Monk is the quirky brilliance that comes from a man suffering a debilitating mental illness that makes him unable to live and work with most so-called "normal" people, the open case of his wife's death, with it being the acknowledged trigger to his paralysis, hangs like a shadow over the character and the series. It leaves the viewer - even in this first episode - caught between wanting to see Monk get the closure needed to move on and the secret desire to keep him in his damaged state.

Because in his germ-obsessed, gun-fearing, car-fleeing neurosis, Adrian Monk is an interesting character to watch. He is funny, painfully awkward and it is very easy to watch this premiere episode and get thrilled when the underestimated detective scores a major clue and makes a giant connection because his unique vantage point affords him the ability. Adrian Monk is instantly an interesting character and Monk is a delightful mix of humorous and clever detective work that comes together quite well.

Unfortunately, it comes together in a far-too formulaic way in many respects, no more so than in the relationship between Adrian Monk and his enabling nurse, Sharona Fleming. Sharona is a single mother who finds her life absolutely dominated by caring for Monk and trying to insure that he gets reinstated. In tandem with Monk's therapist, Sharona is the truest pro-Monk force on the show. The problem, then, comes in the form of the conceits that their relationship brings out.

Here in the premiere episode, Adrian tracks down Sharona while she is on a date, angering her to the point where she quits her job as his nurse and assistant. This prompts the mayor and the police captain, Stottlemeyer, to intervene to try to protect Monk from being alone by working to hire her back. The result is a fairly canned sequence that illustrates just how helpless and disabled Monk is on his own without her aid. The problem here is that any perceptive viewer will get all that from the teaser to the episode. As Monk analyzes clues in the very first scene of the episode, he continues to return to the question of whether the oven is truly off at home and it is only Sharona who keeps him focused and redirects him effectively.

In other words, writer Andy Breckman and director Dean Parisot quite effectively show from the beginning what they degenerate into telling later on. It's a disappointing plot and character conceit that serves little purpose other than to flesh out a pilot episode to an hour nineteen minutes instead of the standard forty-three minute "hour" debut. Similarly, late in the episode a scene involving Sharona, Adrian and Sharona's son allows Monk to put together the last clues needed to crack the case in a plot-convenient obviousness that only occurs in films of this sort.

True cinephiles of the mystery/detective genre will note that the scene involving Sharona and her date is compositionally similar to what Chris Carter edited out of The X-Files's pilot episode. The treasured deleted scene to that episode has Scully out on a date to illustrate that she had a life outside the FBI and it seems that Sharona's date scene is trying to make the same point, that she wants to have a life outside of caring for Adrian Monk.

What makes this premiere episode one of the better ones on the market is the quality of the source material. The actors are all doing a pretty impressive job at establishing their characters and the world of Monk. It is a delight to see Gail O'Grady as the mayor's wife, Miranda . O'Grady is known to fans of detective shows as Donna Abandando from NYPD Blue, where she began as an extra and became a regular in the second season due to her overwhelming popularity. O'Grady here is anything but timid or reserved as she was as Abandando, delivering one of the funniest lines in the episode as she watches Monk reinsert pins into the police board.

Bitty Schram, who plays Sharona, makes a distinctive impression from the moment she first appears on screen. She has a very subtle authority to her that makes it very believable that she might be a home health care aid and have the ability to keep Adrian focused. Schram modulates well between the script-demanded compassion and impatience to create a very realistic and vital character.

But it is Tony Shalhoub, who plays Adrian Monk, who is responsible for whether or not the episode sinks or swims. Shalhoub played the chief engineer character in Galaxy Quest and there he had a reserved quality that made for a more subtle form of humor. He seems to call upon some of those same tricks, the shrug, the quiet piercing "what?!" look that he can do with his eyes, but he enhances what we've seen from him before with an even stronger physical presence. Shalhoub contorts his body so that Monk never seems to take up all that much space. Instead, he is focused, compact and walks in a way that gives the sense that he is confined. Shalhoub brings a lot of physical awkwardness to sell the role and he does it admirably.

On DVD, the premiere episode looks and sounds good, but despite the great acting, interesting characters and cripplingly predictable crime-solving plot, it is ultimately impossible for me to recommend this DVD. It's one episode, with no bonus features. I understand the principle of these pilot-episode releases, but do not believe they work. The purpose, of course, is to offer an affordable option for those considering the more expensive full-season DVD boxed set. The problem is, many viewers will watch the first episode, especially of a largely episodic series like this one appears to be, and might even enjoy it but not be intrigued enough by the mere idea that there is more out there. Monk solves a case. Okay, if you buy the DVD season boxed sets that follows, presumably he does it again and again and again. Without even a second episode to illustrate that there is something worthwhile coming up, the viewer has to assume that the repetition is going to be, well, just that. Another episode and a commentary track or featurette might have added some value to this disc that would have made it worthwhile, but as it stands it severely underuses the medium.

For other pilot episode reviews, please be sure to check out my takes on:
“Pilot” - Millennium
“The Cage” - Star Trek
“The First Episode” - Northern Exposure


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

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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