Late last year, while preparing to interview the actor Tony Shalhoub, I decided to watch a couple of episodes of his long-running TV series Monk, a show I had previously known from such places as playing in the background at my grandma’s house. “What if we become Monkheads?” my husband joked as we settled in to start the first episode.
A few months and 96 episodes later, I can say with the utmost sincerity: we’re Monkheads now.
Monk originally aired from 2002 to 2009 on USA Network, parallel to but a world apart from the shows that would come to define the Golden Age of Television—The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire. It was immensely popular, with its finale setting a cable ratings record of 9.4 million viewers, the majority skewing older than the 18-49 range. Shalhoub plays Adrien Monk, a former San Francisco homicide detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder whose fastidiousness and attention to detail make him incomparably gifted at solving crimes. But his condition spiraled when his beloved wife Trudy was murdered and he was stripped of his police badge, leading him to work as a private detective and a consultant for the force instead. Ostensibly, he is trying to solve Trudy’s murder throughout the series, but that storyline only moves forward once every season or so, leaving the rest of the episodes devoted to individual murder cases and their tidy resolutions.
If I initially approached Monk with some ironic detachment, I found it dissolving with each subsequent episode. I was charmed by his mouthy Jersey girl assistant Sharona (Bitty Schram) and had a visceral feeling of betrayal, 15 years too late, when they suddenly wrote her off the show and replaced her with Natalie (Traylor Howard). I was increasingly attracted to the hardboiled, robustly mustachioed Captain Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine, best known as … Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs), even when it dawned on me that he was written specifically to be sexy to women in the 55+ age range. (Monk is otherwise a decidedly sex-free zone; Shalhoub told the Huffington Post in 2017 that he belives Monk is still a virgin.) And I was delighted by the surprising slate of guest stars, like Willie Nelson, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, Rachel Dratch, and Carmen Electra, among others. Any Best Show fans reading should also know that Tom Scharpling was the writer and executive producer for several seasons, and his co-host Jon Wurster has a writing credit for an episode in season six.
Watching Monk is like slipping my brain into my softest pair of sweatpants for 45 minutes at a time, or impulse-buying a roll of Werther’s Originals in the drugstore checkout line. The crimes are gripping enough that the viewer is invested in seeing them solved, but rarely gruesome; any outward zaniness often gives way to sweetness and sadness. Best of all, there is no current Monk discourse in 2020, aside from me regularly saying, “so, I’ve been watching Monk” to a bunch of people who don’t watch Monk. (I imagine the OCD aspect would have been met with some pushback today, though, as Variety reported in 2008, mental health organizations regularly praised the show for its depiction.)
It is part of my job to watch TV, which is incredible in theory and often in practice, but even if it weren’t, I would find myself overwhelmed by the glut of shiny new streaming options, each vying to offer up the latest algorithm-determined content. There is something especially pleasurable about opting out for just one show, about committing to a quaint, unhip episodic comedy-drama that actually requires no commitment at all.
If you, too, are under the age of 60 and Monk-curious, I suggest starting with my favorite: season two, episode 12, “Mr. Monk and the TV Star.” A famous TV star’s wife is murdered. Monk suspects the actor did it. But the actor has an airtight alibi—and a pitch-perfectly deranged stalker, played by Sarah Silverman. It has everything you want in a Monk episode: Monk solving a seemingly unsolvable case, a guest star giving it their all, Sharona as the assistant.
At this point in my Monk journey, I can comfortably say that the show has absolutely vaulted over the shark by now. The plot lines are becoming increasingly hokey—there is one that essentially boils down to “computers bad, Monk good”—and you can palpably sense the writer’s room stretching themselves thin to keep it going through eight seasons. But I’ll continue watching until the end, like a true Monkhead. And then I’ll get into Columbo next.
Was everyone eating these sensible fiber cookies without me?
Originally Appeared on GQ