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‘Monk’s’ must-see defective detective

Times Staff Writer

Tony Shalhoub’s obsessive-compulsive former police detective isn’t the only minutiae maniac on the USA network’s mystery-comedy-drama “Monk.” The criminal geniuses he catches every week are impressively detail-oriented, too. The perverts, psychos, addicts, shut-ins and low-life thugs who stalk other procedural shows pretty much stay away.

On “Monk,” both crime and crime solving are skills akin to clockmaking, precise and meticulous. In fact, “Monk,” whose titular character also suffers from a wide array of dirt- and disorder-related phobias, is so satisfyingly neat, meticulous and methodical it adds a new, oddly compelling dimension to the phrase “must-see.”

As psychological afflictions go, a detective could suffer from worse things than a fixation on fine points and the ability to pick up on things others don’t. So, for that matter, could a network. “Monk,” which kicks off its third season tonight, set an unlikely precedent two years ago when ABC aired “Monk” episodes that had run just days before on USA, making it one of the first shows to go from cable to network rather than the other way around. And ABC is doing it again, showing reruns of season two starting Saturday. (Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” which later aired on NBC, is another show that followed that model.)

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For those unfamiliar with the show, Adrian Monk is a dismissed San Francisco police detective trying to worm his way back on the force by working as a consultant, to his former boss’ chagrin, on the most perplexing cases. His psychological disorder was supposedly triggered by the still-unsolved murder of his wife, or so the back story goes. It’s a credit to Shalhoub that it’s hard to imagine Monk as anything other than an overflowing chalice of steaming neuroses. (How did he ever work without his ticks?)

His Watson is Sharona (Bitty Schram), a nurse, personal assistant and all-around sidekick who helps him fight crime while shielding him from the terrors of germs, heights and milk. Ted Levine plays Capt. Stottlemeyer, Monk’s former boss in the San Francisco Police Department and the show’s frustrated authority figure.

The formula may ring bells, but “Monk” is all in the details. With its clever premise and old-fashioned, tongue-in-cheek mystery plots, the show stands out against a sea of grim, self-serious procedural dramas featuring grim, self-serious -- but pouty -- cops. Shalhoub, who won an Emmy last year and has one of “Monk’s” three Golden Globe nominations, is riveting and hilarious as the “defective detective,” the ultimate neurotic Sherlock Holmes for a Prozac nation.

As networks continue to rely on stunts, ham-handed grand gestures and rehashed formulas (on ABC, “Monk” replaces the departed “L.A. Dragnet,” a short-lived geographical spinoff of a remake), “Monk’s” success is both surprising and heartening.

Generally unconcerned with plausibility (Season 3 kicks off with an episode featuring a criminal mastermind from the minimum wage sector), realism (tonight’s episode features a paperboy murdered by a newspaper thief) or anything resembling network cop-show “grittiness,” “Monk” delivers en- grossing, fresh and witty character-driven drama and comedy. (Episode 2 features John Turturro as Monk’s agoraphobic brother, who considers his sibling “the adventurous one.”) And as a weekly brainteaser, it’s addictive. As any puzzle freak knows, there’s something about them that fixates.

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‘Monk’

Where: USA

When: 10 p.m. Fridays. Premieres tonight.

Rating: The network has rated the program TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

Tony Shalhoub...Adrian Monk

Bitty Schram...Sharona Fleming

Ted Levine...Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer

Jason Gray Stanford...Lt. Randall Disher

Creator, David Hoberman. Executive producers, Hoberman, Andy Breckman, Tony Shalhoub.


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