Don’t Lick His Queen


In the old days, every good TV detective had a shtick—Ironside in his wheelchair, Kojak and his lollipop, Columbo with his rumpled raincoat and perpetual squint. Monk, just entering its second season on the USA Network, comes equipped with the perfect gimmick for our dysfunction-crazed era: Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) is an obsessive-compulsive sleuth who nabs killers by following his own maniacal fixations. His obsession with symmetry makes him hyper-alert to telltale inconsistencies, while his need to control every tiny detail in his environment makes him spot clues others miss. Monk feels compelled to dot every i and cross every t—literally.

Shalhoub is an American indie-movie sad sack of the same ilk as Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, and Stanley Tucci (all four Coen brothers regulars). Like the volatile, melancholy chef Shalhoub played in Tucci’s Big Night, Monk has the aura of a brilliant but misunderstood man. Hyper-alert yet spaced-out, Monk moves at a different speed from the rest of humanity. He’s both adorable and awkward to watch.

Earlier episodes filled in Monk’s backstory—he was once a talented detective in the San Francisco police department, until his wife was killed four years ago. Her murder remains unsolved, something that seems to gnaw at his guts. It also exacerbated his compulsion to tie up loose ends, causing what had been mere quirkiness to erupt into full-blown OCD, with symptoms so paralyzing he was suspended from the force. The police chief—a bumbler named Stottlemeyer—is understandably wary of putting a gun back in Monk’s fidgety hands, but reluctantly brings him in as a consultant on particularly baffling crimes. Even this makes Stottlemeyer nervous. When scared-of-heights Monk arrives at a crime scene atop a clock tower, the chief teases him: “I bet this is your worst nightmare, eh?” Monk answers earnestly, “No, it’s my fourth worst. Or maybe it’s my fifth.” He debates with himself for a few seconds before admitting, “Sorry, I didn’t bring the list with me.”

Monk’s nurse, Sharona (Bitty Schram), plays the consummate sidekick—a tough-talking single mom with a hairsprayed tangle of bleach-blond curls and a penchant for thigh-high boots. She insulates Monk from disorder (always a wet-wipe at the ready to ward off germs) and keeps him from annoying other people too much. The Monk-Sharona partnership isn’t entirely believable (who’s paying this chick’s round-the-clock salary?), but they still make a classic odd couple, volleying lightning-quick repartee worthy of Gilmore Girls. And though she steadfastly protects him, Sharona also knows just how to needle Monk. When he gets pompous during a chess match, she outsmarts him by licking a queen, knowing he won’t place his fingers anywhere near the soiled game piece. “You can’t do that—it’s illegal,” he protests. “What,” she taunts, “there’s an unwritten licking-the-queen rule?”

Monk bears little resemblance to other contemporary cop dramas. That’s because it firmly avoids (a) graphic violence, (b) wobbly pseudo-realist camera action, and (c) the unhappy endings you get in cutting-edge series like The Wire. Monk is a nostalgic trip back to old-school sleuth shows, where the detective uses his wits rather than a weapon and always gets his man two minutes before the credits roll. (Even the use of our hero’s name as the title is a quaint throwback.) Early in each episode, this Ritalin-era Hercule Poirot intuits who the perpetrator is by spotting some telltale discrepancy invisible to the normal, unimpaired eye, and then spends the rest of the show joining the dots and proving it to the skeptics that inevitably resist him every step of the way. You’d think they’d learn after a while, since he’s always, always right.

The desire to distinguish Monk from modern police series sometimes sends it too far into the realm of retro-contrivance, though. One silly episode set up Willie Nelson as the prime suspect in the killing of his own road manager—a long excuse to have Monk play clarinet with Nelson’s band. Another week, the entire plot took place on an airplane, a Seinfeld-like device that allowed the writers to exploit Monk’s fear of flying to the point of exhaustion.

The show can’t decide whether to downplay Monk’s mental illness or emphasize it, but they could probably have a lot more creative fun with the subject. One of the most amusing plots last season had Monk temporarily committed to an asylum, where—in between productive therapy sessions—he stumbled on a crime. Assisted by two fellow inmates (a pathological liar and a guy obsessed with Santa Claus), Monk re-enacted the murder and unmasked his shrink as the killer.

Hovering somewhere between Sherlock Holmes, Rain Man, and Scooby Doo, Monk is best filed under: far-fetched but entertaining.

The cable network Trio—which goes by the staccato slogan “pop, culture, tv”—has been putting together some cool pop, culture, programming lately. Last month was an “uncensored comedy” festival featuring a documentary on the late Bill Hicks. The week of July 4 their focus is on country music, with the television premiere of two docs (Wilco’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass), a couple of Willie Nelson tribute concerts, and a four-part mini- series assembled by the BBC, Lost Highway: The History of American Country.

Lost Highway takes us on a stellar tour of 100 years of country music with a riveting mix of anecdotes and vintage performance footage. Rather than approaching the genre chronologically, each episode follows a thematic thread. The format allows us to track ideas across the decades, although it means some crucial figures get left out altogether (George Jones, for instance). The first hour starts with the emergence of country music as we know it, as it was brought down from the mountains by the Carter family and mutated under the influence of new performers, technology, and the changing marketplace. The last hour zooms in on the “Sweethearts of the Rodeo,” tracing the evolution of female performers—from the wholesome cowgirl image to the hillbilly feminism of Loretta Lynn (who claims she was surprised by all the fuss surrounding her 1960s song about the pill) to Gillian Welch, heralded as a blessed return to the intimate, elemental sound of mountain folks making music on their front porch.

One thing Lost Highway makes clear is that country music has been pining for purity almost as long as it has existed. One critic jokes that only a few years after Bill Monroe helped create the sound of bluegrass he had already become “chief of police of bluegrass authenticity.” That struggle between nostalgia and commerce, olden times and modern days, recurs again and again in the series. Nashville quickly becomes a dead-soul factory, leeching the music’s heart, and each successive generation finds a new way to kick country’s ass and pick up new believers along the way.

Indian summer has come early this year. In a strange televisual coincidence, two cable networks have unleashed miniature Bollywood film festivals. TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is already at the end of its Indian cinema month, but a few 1950s classics remain: the black-and-white melodrama Mother India and Bimal Roy’s neorealist Do Bigha Zamien will both be shown on June 26. In mid July, the Sundance Channel airs two more recent critically acclaimed extravaganzas, Agni Varsha and Gaja Gamini, accompanied by a documentary about four young Indo-Canadians who aspire to Bollywood stardom.