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'Monk' is good, clean detective work


He counts and carefully touches parking meters - each and every one - as he's running for his life. He interrupts his analysis of a murder scene with a room full of police officials listening because he's suddenly certain he forgot to turn off the stove back at his house. And he never leaves home without a fresh supply of sealed, anti-bacterial towelettes.

This is Adrian Monk - American television's first obsessive-compulsive detective. Or, as one character in Monk, a new crime series premiering tonight on the USA cable channel, calls him, "the defective detective."

Tonight's two-hour movie pilot has major problems in trying to pull off the tricky business of combining drama and elements of high comedy within the fairly rigid conventions of the TV detective drama. But the writing by Andy Breckman (Rat Race) and the performance of veteran character actor Tony Shalhoub (The Man Who Wasn't There) combine to deliver one of the most weirdly appealing television sleuths since Richard Belzer's Detective John Munch of Homicide: Life on the Street.

Don't get me wrong, Monk could not be more different in dominant tone than the grimly realistic Homicide. To find the most apt comparison in terms of tone, you have to go all the way back to the early 1970s and The NBC Mystery Movie, a weekly franchise of revolving shows that gave us such series as McMillan and Wife, McCloud, Quincy, Lanigan's Rabbi and Columbo.

The tone will strike some viewers as old-fashioned and suspension-of-disbelief unrealistic. But, if you are of baby-boomer age and were a fan of such NBC series, you just might like it in a reassuring, let-me-slip-into-a-warm-TV-bath kind of way.

As for Monk himself, there is a temptation for want of easy reference to compare him to Peter Falk's Lt. Columbo. But you don't compare a semi-interesting character you've only just met in a cable pilot to one of the greatest and most enduring characters of American detective fiction without cheapening the original.

Part of what makes Monk such a throwback is the relationship at the center of the series between the detective and Sharona (Bitty Schram), his assistant. The term "assistant" barely begins to describe a role that ranges from nurse and driver to keeper and surrogate mother.

But while she dresses the part of a 1970s TV "Girl Friday" in mini-skirt and knee-high boots, there is something very contemporary about her issues as a single mother trying not to let her job rule her life. Shram, a onetime University of Maryland student, plays Sharona with a nice mix of admiration vs. irritation with Monk.

The reason Monk, who was once the star homicide detective of the San Francisco Police Department, needs so much help is that his wife was killed by a car bomb four years ago. That very contemporary trauma turned a manageable anxiety disorder into the full-blown obsessive-compulsive-phobic life-dominating illness he is just starting to come out of as we meet him tonight. His psychiatrist almost feels comfortable recommending that the SFPD reinstate Monk to duty after three years of a forced medical leave - almost.

The case on which Monk is called in to consult by the SFPD involves the attempted assassination of a mayoral candidate. It's not much of a case, but what matters in a series like this is not so much the criminal case as it is the kind of showcase it provides for the star detective's performance. Before this one ends, our man of a million anti-bacterial towelettes is knee-deep in the muck of a San Francisco sewer.

I suspect there will be some who criticize the series for not being serious enough in its treatment of anxiety disorder. As much fun as the series has with Monk, I believe it also shows how anguished and disabled its victims can become. And no one on this series is promising the kind of instant cure that the wall-to-wall ads for drugs like Paxil are doing these days across the television dial.


When: Tonight at 9

Where: USA cable

In brief: The debut of a brilliant but troubled detective in an old-fashioned series.

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