Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) fears germs, heights, darkness, and milk (though he’s “making good progress with the milk”). He keeps his socks in Ziploc bags, maintains a closet Joan Crawford would envy for its orderliness, and taps each pole or parking meter he passes.
Monk has OCD. A decade ago, few people would have known that OCD stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder. That’s not to say it’s a new character trait in the world of entertainment. The Odd Couple‘s neurotic neat freak Felix Unger was considered “nuts” by his roommate, Oscar Madison, himself a compulsive gambler. Today, though, thanks to years of talk shows and doctor shows — indeed, a tv culture that might be called obsessed with compulsions and obsessions — the average viewer possesses at least a basic understanding of Monk’s diagnosis. Knowing something about the validity and tenacity of OCD, it’s easier to accept his need for a full-time nurse and appreciate his revulsion at grubby kids coughing, sneezing, and blowing their noses, a little too nearby.
Monk’s disorder took hold of him four years earlier, after a car bomb caused the traumatic death of his wife, a woman he loved dearly. A year later, the San Francisco Police Department granted him a psychological discharge. It’s a temporary suspension and he hopes to be reinstated soon. In the meantime, Monk works as a private consultant, solving crimes with the help of his personal nurse, Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram, A League of Their Own). They make a formidable and entertaining team, more engaging than the first episode’s plot. Their relationship breaks the usual boundaries between a healthcare worker and patient. Monk finds comfort in the consistent care and routine Sharona provides. She finds excitement in working closely with a detective on his “adventures.” She likens herself to “Lois Lane.”
And as a duo, their different skills mesh well. Monk possesses brilliant powers of deduction. When he estimates an assassin’s height, based on a window blind’s twisted cord, Sharona observes that he has a “Zen-Sherlock Holmes thing.” She has faith in Monk, though the cops on the scene feel his conclusion is farfetched.
He also possesses a photographic memory. He correctly replaces dozens of colored pushpins after he’s knocked them from their careful arrangement on a map. Sharona remembers things, too, but her memories are rooted in emotions. When no one else can locate the detective, Sharona knows he’s at his wife’s gravesite. Their partnership is mutually supportive on more mundane levels as well: when he discards cans of food that have tiny dents, she takes them home; she’s a single mother with a growing boy.
On occasion, Sharona’s patience proves limited. While surveying a crime scene, Monk obsesses about whether he left his stove on before leaving home. He thinks he smelled gas. He can’t concentrate at the crime scene. Understandably, Sharona’s voice goes up a notch or two as she sarcastically asks whether she should drive all the way back to his home to make sure the knobs are turned off. Sharona scolds Monk so frequently, you have to wonder whether she would be able to find a job elsewhere. The two seem destined for each other.
During the premiere episode, Sharona briefly disrupts their routine by going on a date. Monk is distraught: what about their weekly chicken potpie dinner? He ventures into the city and intrudes upon the couple as they get to know each other over dinner. As Sharona’s date shares his background, he makes errors that seem to refute the validity of his excellent resume. Monk calls the guy on his lies, embarrassing Sharona. Here, a predictably potential romantic tension arises: does he out the guy because he’s concerned for Sharona, as he suggests during their walk home? Or is he jealous, or fearful that another relationship will disrupt their orderly arrangement? Or, does any break in his routine provoke him to exert control over the situation, as well as Sharona?
Whatever the reason, Sharona quits, temporarily. And frequently, it would seem, for Monk responds to her announcement with a simple, “Not again?” Sharona claims she is serious this time, that without some normalcy in her life, she’ll go crazy. “Like me?” Monk asks, revealing his insecurity. Without Sharona, Monk would simply succumb to his disorder and allow the darkness, germs, and memories of his murdered wife to take over his mind. She must: only with her help can Monk catch the criminal. If the energy and originality of the storylines catch up with their dynamic, the series can only improve.