Used to be that summer TV was all crap: reruns and dumped pilots too lame for the networks to run as fall series. The theory, I suppose, was that Americans were too busy vacationing to stay in-doors and watch new episodes of their favorite series. Basic cable showed how foolish that particular notion was, of course, and with nets like HBO, Sci-Fi and USA happily premiering episodes that they can run more than once in a week, decent scripted television can now be found all year. In some cases, the summer material’s better than what we’re given during the traditional season: certainly, a drum-tight series like The Wire has it over 95% of the crap being held ’til fall.
Which brings us to Monk. Five years ago, who would’ve guessed that USA, of all channels, would’ve been a player in the realm of Good Summer Teevee? USA – the network that heedlessly extended Lorenzo Lamas’ career and reran Wings into the ground – giving us the best old-fashioned mystery series on television today.
Friday saw the second season premiere for Tony Shaloub’s likable Obsessive-Compulsive detective (now with New ‘N’ Utterly Appropriate Randy Newman Theme Song!), and while this outing may’ve overplayed the pathos card (the case took place at a school where our hero’s late wife was a student, so we got several scenes showing him poignantly pondering the places she once walked), it still stood as a strong Columbo-styled “impossible” murder mystery. The ep even contained a scene where smug bad guy Andrew McCarthy challenges our hero to prove he’s the killer – and, as with Peter Falk’s disheveled detective, we instantly wanted Adrian Monk to intellectually wipe the floor with the arrogant s.o.b.
He does, of course, but not without some trademark Monk-ish moments of high anxiety. Brought to the private school by its headmistress to investigate the seeming suicide of an English teacher, the consulting detective comes on board as the teacher’s temporary replacement. A scene where he introduces himself to the class, neurotically writing then erasing the letters of his name on the classroom blackboard, was writhingly funny.
Most episodes of Monk have at least one scene where we’re torn between laughing and squirming. It’s this willingness to flirt with audience discomfort that lifts the show from being just another professionally made genre piece – that and Shaloub’s wholehearted performance as the mentally ill Monk. At one point in the season premiere, our hero’s no-nonsense helper/assistant Sharona (Bitsy Shram) sees him mooning over a photo of his wife as a student. She looks happy, Sharona notes. “She hadn’t met me yet,” Adrian answers. As delivered by Shaloub, it was a funny line – even as you recognized the darker undercurrents within it.
Alright: more Good Summer Teevee!