DVD Review: Monk: The Complete Series (2020 Rerelease)
Critics and pundits love to bandy the word “relevant” around certain creative works, arguing that because of its topic, themes, or political agenda, a certain book or movie or TV series is exceptionally “relevant” to the current era. Often, this terminology means nothing more than “this work reflects my personal opinions and I want people to watch it in the hopes of promoting my views.” Many of these supposedly-“relevant” shows are barely-disguised political screeds with only thin niche appeal. Dystopian nightmares and dramatizations of hot-button issues declare themselves “relevant” and “important,” when in fact all they are is pretentious hot air.
Yet while the term “relevant” is used a lot, what we really need to do is look at exactly what the term ought to mean for the average viewer. Most of the shows that proudly trumpet how “relevant” they are strive mightily to mold themselves into a topical image, and quickly become dated husks. It’s ironic, therefore, how an early twenty-first century show that has been off the air for years has unexpectedly become the most “relevant” show of 2020, one that addresses the critical issues permeating every aspect of life during this sequestered spring. The story of one man’s constant battle against fear has become a struggle that every American now shares, and his methods of protecting himself, mocked and belittled just a few short months ago, are now public health policy. The show in question, of course, is Monk.
This beloved series is the tale of a brilliant San Francisco detective, Adrian Monk (the superlative Tony Shaloub), left devastated by the unsolved murder by car bomb of his beloved wife Trudy. When his obsessive-compulsive disorder got him fired from the police force, Monk eventually came back as a consultant, aided by his nurse Sharona (Bitty Schram) in the first two and a half seasons, and assisted by Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard) for the remainder of the series. Jason Gray-Stanford and Ted Levine co-starred as the police officers Randy Disher and Captain Leland Stottlemeyer.
In every episode, Monk had to battle one of his many fears and phobias, from heights to water to filth and much more. Disinfecting wipes, rituals, and a strict cleanliness regimen helped him through tasks that mean nothing to most people. His fear of germs and infection made him a figure of fun to many people… but the joke, such as it is, has been turned around dramatically since March of this year. If anything, most of Monk’s preventative measures seem insufficient by today’s standards. What is more, Monk’s agoraphobic brother Ambrose (John Turturro, in a trio of terrific guest appearances) has barely left his house in many years. Behavior that seemed ridiculous a decade ago will never be viewed the same way again. Now, virtually every American can look at the Monk brothers and see themselves in them. What fifteen years ago was seen as a bizarre overreaction is now de rigueur. The Monks were clearly ahead of their time.
The mysteries followed several different templates. Sometimes the killer was revealed immediately, Columbo-style. Sometimes the true villain was unclear. Often, the case wasn’t a whodunit so much as a howdunit. Almost invariably, Monk’s incredible powers of observation and insight would lead him to the solution. Readers familiar with some of the puzzle books of producer Hy Conrad will note that he borrowed many of the solutions and plot points from his mini-mysteries for the show. Even though the experienced mystery puzzler could solve most of the cases with minimal difficulty, each episode was worth watching due to the humor and delightful cast.
Admittedly, some of the humor came from poking fun at Monk’s obsessions and compulsions, but the heart of the show stemmed from Monk’s constant struggle to make sense of a world gone mad. Monk unquestionably suffered from mental illness, but there is a huge difference between the medical diagnosis of mental illness and the legal definition of insanity, which determines whether or not someone can tell the difference between right and wrong. Each episode, ordinary people committed terrible crimes because they thought they could get away with it. Monk never lost sight of his moral compass, while all around him, people thought that a little money, or a passionate affair, or a prestigious job was worth the life of another human being. Ultimately, Monk may have been challenged by anxiety, but lack of concern for other human beings turned seemingly well-adjusted people into murderous monsters every week. Monk asked vital questions so subtly most viewers missed it—who is sane, and who is insane?
Monk was about more than solving a mystery, it was about setting the world right, and bringing structure to disorder. As funny and light as it could be, it was also dark and raised unsettling questions. As Monk’s devastation over his wife’s death showed, we romanticize true love, but we rarely force ourselves to think about the devastation that shatters what’s left of our lives when we lose a person who means everything to us. What does it mean to survive if you’re miserable? Voltaire famously moralized that it was best to tend to one’s own garden, but Monk challenged this, illustrating that one can put one’s own affairs in order, but it all means nothing when the rest of the world around us is left in disarray. If I find Monk’s worldview more realistic and insightful than Candide, it’s because we don’t live in “the best of all possible worlds,” and that only constant care and attention can keep the fragile threads of sanity, community, and decency from breaking. “Cleaning up” the world may take a lot out of us, but the alternative of pestilence (both real and metaphorical) and corruption taking root in all aspects of the world is a far worse alternative.
Recently, Shaloub made a short video showing how Monk handles quarantine, featuring brief appearances by the supporting cast. With so many revivals coming, could Monk be next? Personally, I hope so. Monk never set out to capture the zeitgeist, yet seen through the prism of the Quarantine of 2020, the entire series can now be viewed in a different light. As Stottlemeyer says in the reunion video, “We are all Monk now.” Adrian Monk and his brother Ambrose have become the Everymen for our time, and the rerelease of the series couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
Monk: The Complete Series (2020 Rerelease)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment