Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Monk was the decade’s silliest—and saddest—Sherlock Holmes

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Sherlock Holmes is among the most ubiquitous characters of all time. He was so popular that his own author couldn’t kill him off, and he’s remained a colossal cultural figure since. His reach extends beyond the success of Holmesian TV (Sherlock and Elementary) and film (2009’s Sherlock Holmes and the upcoming Mr. Holmes). Batman and Spock were both modeled on Holmes, as were Gil Grisome from CSI, Robert Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and House M.D.’s Dr. Gregory House.


Most TV treatments of Holmes have painted him in varying shades of badass—an icy, ingenious loner prone to withering asides, always the coolest guy in the room. As the tagline for the new series Backstrom bluntly puts it, “Brilliant detective. Total dick.” That disparity is appealing, and there is potential pathos to this character. He’s intellectually peerless yet stunted emotionally—a Tin Man in a world of Scarecrows—but any poignancy is often obscured by layers of snappy dialogue and charismatic energy.

Monk, USA’s comedy-procedural about a detective with OCD, was originally conceived by ABC executives as a show about a Clouseau-like buffoon starring Michael Richards. Richards passed, and ABC handed it over to USA. Then SNL alum Andy Breckman was brought in, and he turned to Holmes as an inspiration. He created the character of Adrian Monk (superbly played by Tony Shalhoub) and surrounded the detective with a Watson-like nurse, Sharona (Bitty Schram) and a Lestrade equivalent, Police Captain Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine). Dimwitted Lieutenant Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford) rounds out the main ensemble.


While Monk shares many of the qualities of his fellow sleuths—narcissism, a strong sense of justice, uncanny deductions—he lacks any of their coolness. Monk too can be offputtingly square at first glance, with its goofy sense of humor and preoccupation with puzzles. The macho aspects of Sherlock Holmes, his boxing background and occasional cocaine use, are gone. What remains is a fragile and lonely genius. Monk is the cowardly lion of the sleuthing set, terrified of everything from germs and heights to ladybugs and milk.

Yet even though his eccentricities are often played for laughs, Adrian Monk is fundamentally a tragic figure. As the series progresses, we learn more about his unhappy past. His childhood included an emotionally abusive mother, a father who abandoned him, and a Mycroft-esque brother (John Turturro) who suffers from intense agoraphobia. Bullied in school and ridiculed in college for his phobias, Monk finally found happiness through his wife, Trudy (played in flashbacks by a pre-Office Melora Hardin), and his job as a detective for the San Francisco Police Department. Yet this contentment came crashing down when Trudy was killed by a car bomb. As a result, Monk had a nervous breakdown and was kicked off the force. The main through-line of the series is Monk’s effort to be reinstated by the SFPD and find Trudy’s killer.


This tinge of darkness neutralizes softer aspects of the show. Consider the season-five episode “Mr. Monk And The Actor.” It begins with Monk at his therapist’s office. He’s had a minor breakthrough, and for the first time in years, he’ll be going on vacation and cutting down on his therapy. More good news arrives in the form of visiting film executives who want to make a movie from one of Monk’s notorious cases. Famed actor David Ruskin (played with aplomb by Stanley Tucci) will be portraying the detective. Ruskin, however, is an unbalanced individual whose Method style of acting pushes him too deep into the role. Soon, he’s visiting Monk at 2 a.m. to ask about Trudy, dredging up feelings Monk hasn’t visited in years. This dogged commitment results in Ruskin trying to solve Trudy’s murder by holding a car dealership hostage. Monk is able to stop the actor before he hurts anyone, but the emotional damage is done: The detective cancels his vacation and ups his therapy.

Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci

There’s plenty of comedy in “Mr. Monk And The Actor.” The writers wring laughs from the inaccuracies in Hollywood’s versions of the series’ leads, and the culminating fight scene in which Shalhoub and Tucci try to out-Monk each other is a complete joy. However, the arc of the episode serves as a microcosm for the series: Monk has a chance at some small happiness, only to have it taken away, leaving him worse than before.

A similar improvement and regression drives “Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine,” in which prescription drugs leave the detective calmer but still friendless, and “Mr. Monk Gets Hypnotized,” in which he attains some happiness, but only through reverting to a childlike state. Any attempt at relief is dashed by episode’s end. Some of this is likely due to Monk’s procedural nature—everything must revert to normal so the show can reset for next week. But Adrian Monk’s neutral state is more desperate than most TV detectives, or indeed most TV characters.


As Monk wore on, creative fatigue began to show. Some episodes in later seasons feel less like an offbeat procedural than a crime-tinged sitcom, as deft mysteries take a backseat to the character’s jovial chemistry. Rehash syndrome sets in, too. In “Mr. Monk And The UFO” for instance, a murderer uses a fake UFO to draw alien fanatics into discovering a dead body, much as in “Mr. Monk And The Psychic” a murderer uses a fake prediction to draw ESP fanatics into discovering a dead body. In addition, the main ensemble teeters on the edge of caricature—most notably with Lieutenant Disher, whose increasing idiocy pushes suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

Yet the series never sells out its protagonist’s need for justice and acceptance. It is this compelling desire, underpinning a goofy premise, that gives the show its remarkable durability. Monk weathered the death of a supporting cast member—Stanley Kamel as Monk’s long-suffering therapist Dr. Kroger—and the replacement of a series lead. When Bitty Schram held out for more money after season two, producers wrote her out of the series and brought in Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard) who remained as Monk’s personal assistant for the remaining six seasons. The series’ success also spawned an online prequel series called Little Monk and 19 novels.


Another crucial factor in Monk’s longevity is Tony Shalhoub’s performance. Shalhoub won a Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild awards and three Emmys for the role, and his characterization is virtuosic. Monk’s behavior is often outlandish, and Shalhoub was increasingly placed in situations that played to his talent for physical comedy. Yet no matter how over the top he gets—freaking out over accidentally inhaling marijuana, trying to solve a San Francisco garbage strike singlehandedly, speaking in gibberish as a coping mechanism—Monk’s actions are always grounded in palpable feeling. Indeed, he so embodies the role that seeing the actor as a hardened tough guy in films like Barton Fink is jarring—a fact writers seized upon for the agreeably bonkers “Mr. Monk Is Someone Else,” in which the detective must pose as his gangster doppelganger. Throughout the series, Shalhoub is immensely watchable, frequently hilarious, and always vulnerable.

This naked vulnerability pushes Adrian Monk into a different realm than his fellow Holmes-esque detectives. Monk’s weaknesses provide us with a desire for growth: Audiences may never want Sherlock to change, but we crave a breakthrough for Adrian. Monk aired its series finale in 2009 and brought in 9.4 million viewers, which at the time was the highest-rated episode of a cable drama in history. By the finale’s end, Adrian Monk finds his wife’s killer, and more importantly, finds some peace and hope for the future. It’s a happy ending, but one that feels deserved—a just reward for weathering years of fear and pain.


Share This Story