In an era of TV ruled by police procedurals, whimsy usually takes a back seat to glum determination. The opposite is true on Andy Breckman's Monk, a family-friendly hit for Universal Television and USA Network. The show is redolent of the heyday of Columbo, in part for its mousetrap mysteries and in part for its idiosyncratic character actor turned star, Tony Shalhoub.
Before Monk, Shalhoub built recognition as a regular on the sitcom Wings, co-star of Stanley Tucci's Big Night, and supporting actor in films like Men in Black, the Spy Kids films, Galaxy Quest, and the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn't There. But as a creative partner (executive producer) on Monk, Shalhoub participated in the creation of a character that gives him full rein to display his considerable talents as both a comic actor and credible dramatic player (Shalhoub has thus far won two Emmys and a Golden Globe for the role).
Shalhoub plays Adrian Monk, a "defective detective" who can't get over the murder of his wife Trudy (Melora Hardin). Plagued with phobias, tics, and quirks exacerbated by obsessive compulsive disorder (here's a man who eats his alphabet soup in alphabetical order), Monk lost his position on the police force and came to rely on the assistance of his psychiatrist, Dr. Kroger (Stanley Kamel), and a constantly on-call personal assistant, first Sharona Fleming (the departed Bitty Schram) and then Natalie Teeger (endearing Traylor Howard).
A genius detective, Monk continues compulsively to solve crimes in his role as a contracted advisor to the San Francisco Police Department, represented by slow-burning Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) and his goofy right-hand man Lt. Randall Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford). With the years, the supporting characters have become increasingly warm in their protectiveness and support to Monk, another reason that—despite its dark core—Monk remains TV comfort food.
Season Four makes time for return appearances by a few key recurring characters. John Turturro (like Shalhoub, a favorite of the Coen Brothers) again plays Ambrose Monk, Adrian's agoraphobic brother; the episode "Mr. Monk Goes Home Again" ponders the absence of the boys' father. In "Mr. Monk and the Captain's Marriage," Glenne Headley makes a fourth appearance as Karen Stottlemeyer, Leland's wife, and the news is not all good for the troubled captain. In a nice nod to consistency, Jarrad Paul pops up as Monk's nerdy neighbor Kevin Dorfman. (Then there's the rather silly episode "Mr. Monk and Little Monk," which casts Grant "Oliver Beene" Rosenmeyer as Monk in middle-school flashbacks.)
Monk also continues to showcase a strong crop of guest actors. The biggest guns of Season Four are Jason Alexander as messy p.i. Marty Eels ("Mr. Monk and the Other Detective"), Malcolm McDowell as a dastardly fashion designer ("Mr. Monk Goes to a Fashion Show"), and Jon Favreau ("Mr. Monk Goes to the Dentist"), but many other terrific character actors appear: Dana Ivey, Laurie Metcalf, Richard Libertini, Harve Presnell, Charles Napier, Nicky Katt, DJ Qualls, Jeffrey Donovan, Benito Martinez, Wings Hauser, and Holland Taylor (as Natalie's mother), among many others.
The series has been criticized for becoming broader in tone and straining credibility, and the season shows strain in its later episodes. In giving Monk something to redeem in "Mr. Monk and the Astronaut," the writers may go too far with the character's screaming meemies, beginning with a laser-pointer freakout and ending with a warning against a camera flash ("retinal scarring"). Worse, the 12 Angry Men pastiche "Mr. Monk Gets Jury Duty" is chock-full of unrealistic plot conveniences. With viewers who have long-since caught on that every detail has a purpose, the job of the writer has only gotten tougher. Not all cases are created equal: some are fiendishly clever and reasonably airtight while others are either too transparent at the outset or don't hold water.
Even when the writers cheat or get lazy, though, the series is never less than amusing, and in fact, the writers deserve credit for continuing to whip up entertaining iterations on the Monk formula (what happens when Monk gets sick? what if Monk had amnesia? what happens when Monk drinks?), while also winking at formula by devising creative variations on Monk's crime-solving "summations" ("Here's what happened..."). The cast has certainly hit its stride. Levine and Gray-Stanford are consistently amusing in their awkward interactions (the writers have obviously learned to relish this pairing), and despite the daunting task of filling Schram's position, Howard has proven to be a fine foil for the ever-inventive Shalhoub.
Excellent anamorphically enhanced transfers and a serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack comprise a fine presentation for all sixteen episodes of Monk's fourth season: "Mr. Monk and the Other Detective," "Mr. Monk Goes Home Again," "Mr. Monk Stays in Bed," "Mr. Monk Goes to the Office," "Mr. Monk Gets Drunk," "Mr. Monk and Mrs. Monk," "Mr. Monk Goes to a Wedding," "Mr. Monk and Little Monk," "Mr. Monk and the Secret Santa," "Mr. Monk Goes to a Fashion Show," "Mr. Monk Bumps His Head," "Mr. Monk and the Captain's Marriage," "Mr. Monk and the Big Reward," "Mr. Monk and the Astronaut," "Mr. Monk Goes to the Dentist," and "Mr. Monk Gets Jury Duty."
Disc one includes previews for Miami Vice, The Office, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, and Psych, but disc four houses the extras, a customary pair of short featurettes. "The Monk Writing Process" (14:28) is undoubtedly the best bonus feature yet included on a Monk season set, offering tantalizing glimpses into the writer's room as Breckman and his staff "break" the story "Mr. Monk and the Big Reward" (Tony Shalhoub and Traylor Howard also appear on camera to talk about the writing).
"Jon Perkins Behind the Scenes?" (3:35) introduces the detective consultant who coaches the writers and actors in police procedure; unfortunately, we don't get to see him at work in this short piece (Shalhoub, Levine, and Gray-Stanford also provide brief comments). In a consumer friendly move, the set's four discs are housed in slimline cases; note, however, that the packaging has two errors, switching the order of the last two episodes and promising a featurette called "What Does It Take To Be a Writer for Monk?" rather than "Jon Perkins Behind the Scenes?".
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