Intuitively, audiences understand that every year a series stays on the air, the odds that the material will remain fresh and sharp get worse. Some viewers actively await the moment a series will "jump the shark," irreversibly becoming a shadow of its former self. Though the family-friendly detective series Monk has wobbled a bit at times, its sixth season proves that the show remains on solid footing, with a writing staff still spinning crafty mysteries and inventing scenarios to get under the skin of Tony Shalhoub's obsessive-compulsive police consultant Adrian Monk.
As conceived by series creator Andy Breckman and performed by veteran actor Shalhoub (three-time Emmy winner of Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, all for Monk), the character of Adrian Monk is the heir to mystery-series lynchpins Lt. Columbo and Jessica Fletcher. Breckman and his stable of five additional writers expertly walk a line with stories that have just enough blood and nastiness to make kids squirm without ever being explicitly gory or exploitative. While each episode is generally self-contained (excepting the first-time two-parter this season), the series also has an ongoing mythology involving the psychological underpinning for Monk's psychological state: the unsolved murder of his beloved wife Trudy. Given that, the series has another, expertly handled challenge: to balance a mostly light-hearted tone (it is, after all, a comedy) with the dramatic depth of Monk's tragic lifestyle. Again, Shalhoub is the man for the job, making Monk the loveably flawed, believably fleshed out creation Breckman euphemistically calls a "social conservative."
That said, he is also a flexible character, and the writers will bend him at times to fit the needs of a story. One of Season Six's memorable tales, "Mr. Monk Joins a Cult," has Monk hastily overcome certain of his neuroses to indulge his love of orderliness. Under the guidance of a cult leader (Howie Mandel), Monk stays relatively calm with dirt on his hand—though earlier in the season he admits psychic defeat to a ladybug. The writers go there, however, to serve an interesting purpose in examing Monk's susceptibility to the pleasing emotional and intellectual escape of a cult. Reportedly protective of the character, Shalhoub never lets the character stray too far out of bounds, and his acting convincingly bridges the gaps sometimes necessitated in order to continue creating unique hours about Monk's psychology.
In fact, some have called Season Six a return to form for the series after some rather silly outings in Season Five. The season kicks off with the highly entertaining return of Monk super-fan Marci Maven (Sarah Silverman) in the deviously clever mystery "Mr. Monk and His Biggest Fan." Silverman is a certified hoot as a woman who—though she clearly should still should be under a restraining order—wins six hours with Monk at a police charity auction. And the season comes to a slam-bang close with the two-parter "Mr. Monk Is On the Run," The Fugitive given a distinctive Monk twist (in fine you-love-to-hate-him fettle, Scott Glenn plays the Tommy Lee Jones role of a sheriff tracking murder suspect Monk).
In between, we get a number of engaging Monk mysteries/situation comedies: Monk confronted with nudists ("Mr. Monk and the Naked Man"), Monk with insomnia ("Mr. Monk Is Up All Night" finds him befuddling a home-shopping channel shill and polishing eggs), and getting trapped in a bank vault ("Mr. Monk Goes to the Bank"). Shalhoub's industry reputation and the series' cachet continue to attract an interesting collection of guest stars: Snoop Dogg (in the mostly unfortunate "Mr. Monk and the Rapper"), Alfred Molina, Diedrich Bader, David Koechner, Dan Castellaneta, Melora Hardin, Victoria Tennant, Donal Logue, Larry Miller, and Shalhoub's Coen compatriot Peter Stormare ("Mr. Monk Paints His Masterpiece").
Above all the series is not only a show for families to watch together, but it's a show about a family. This point is never clearer than in Season Six, with episodes revolving around Monk's assistant Natalie Teeger and her teen daughter Julie (Traylor Howard and Emmy Clarke), his frequent collaborator Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine), and his much-needed psychiatrist Dr. Charles Kroger (the late Stanley Kamel). A steady comic presence, the hapless Lt. Randall Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford) can also be counted upon to rally 'round Monk. A death threat to Julie has Natalie in hysterics in "Mr. Monk and the Three Julies," Monk strains his relationship with Stottlemeyer by accusing his girlfriend (Sharon Laurence) of murder in "Mr. Monk and the Bad Girlfriend," and Monk seizes the opportunity to do Kroger a solid by mentoring his wayward teen son in "Mr. Monk and the Buried Treasure." The perhaps undervalued straight-man Kamel will surely be missed as the series continues, though Hector Elizondo is a good choice for the man tasked with picking up Monk's therapy.
Those who have been following Monk on DVD will be unsurprised by the latest four-disc collection, Monk—Season Six. The audio-visual quality is consistent (and quite fine), with anamorphic transfers and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks for all sixteen episodes. As usual, there's a smattering of bonus features—this season offering perhaps better-than-usual behind-the-scenes access, along the lines of the excellent "The Monk Writing Process" featurette included in the Season Four release.
The Season Six set has an excellent new feature: video commentaries, an unfortunately misleading term for brief interview segments with the series writers.The commentaries, though short, give the kind of insight I want from bonus features—not fluff, but behind-the-scenes nuggets about the series' creative process. The interviews include "Mr. Monk and His Biggest Fan Video Commentary by writer/executive producer Andy Breckman" (3:45), "Mr. Monk and the Naked Man Video Commentary by writers Tom Gammill & Max Pross" (5:15), "Mr. Monk and the Bad Girlfriend Video Commentary by writer Joe Toplyn" (4:12), "Mr. Monk and the Birds and the Bees Video Commentary by writer Peter Wolk" (4:12), "Mr. Monk and the Buried Treasure Video Commentary by writer/co-executive producer Jonathan Collier" (1:55), "Mr. Monk and the Wrong Man Video Commentary by writer Sal Savo" (2:28), "Mr. Monk Is Up All Night Video Commentary by writer David Breckman" (2:28).
The latter episode also has an audio commentary with Tony Shalhoub, Ted Levine, Jason Gray-Stanford, executive producer David Hoberman, and director/executive producer Randall Zisk. It's a somewhat spotty track, with little interesting information offered, but we do get a sense for the participants' personalities, which is something. This reasonably priced four-disc set will be a must for Monk fans. Those not yet hooked on the series are hereby encouraged to give it a try.
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