‘Monk' sesson finale suffers not from OCD, but a split personality

Diane Werts
Newsday (MCT)

MONK - Friday and Feb. 22 at 9 p.m. EST

on USA cable.

It's kind of hard to take a killer seriously when you hear that police dogs have determined "it's as if he stopped and touched every tree" during his supposedly desperate escape from the authorities.

Yes, it's "Monk." But it's supposed to be a "Monk" in which Tony Shalhoub's obsessive detective is accused of killing a man he believes engineered his wife Trudy's car-bomb death.

Is it likely the hero of a hit TV show is a calculated murderer? No. But wouldn't it be nice if the suspicion of his guilt were at least treated as plausible? Yes, it would be nice. But it wouldn't be "Monk."

And so the season-ending two-parter that begins Friday night on USA cable suffers from its own emblematic compulsion to lighten things up. The episode kicks off strong with an uncharacteristic mood of brutality seething in Shalhoub's nervous Nellie, which makes sense considering how haunted he's been through the series by his beloved wife's killing and his own feelings of guilt over the tragedy. When clues at a "straight-up burglary" lead Monk to the six-fingered man who left similar evidence at the car bombing, the bereaved widower goes shockingly ballistic, in a much-needed injection of tangible menace to a show that normally breathes helium to keep itself floating in the comedic realm.

But Monk, and "Monk," are most impressively effective when his sorrow and psychological struggle are allowed at least transitory dramatic impact. And just when that's happening here, as Monk pulls a gun, bullets fly, death results and our hero is arrested, the script pulls its punches. He can't make a purposeful escape to set things right without stopping to search for a sewing kit to fix a ripped pocket.

Um, don't think so. Even for Monk.

Too bad, because next week's second episode actually dips nicely into the OCD well, when our on-the-lam obsessive-compulsive gets a job at a car wash where he just can't help being particularly precise and thereby noticing possible crime clues. This is both characterization and comedy that clicks, in addition to providing a nifty staging locale for a climactic confrontation.

"Monk" always provides weird rewards, though, even as its could-be-excellent potential routinely settles for good-enough. There's a deliciously insane moment in the first hour when Monk tries to steal a truck hobbled by the anti-theft device The Club, a moment that extends so much longer than it needs to that it enters absurdist territory. Which makes one ponder for a second whether "Monk" ought to just completely disregard the drama and go full-throttle gonzo.

No, probably not. The crimes need at least a sort of logic to pull us through each episode, even as we spend half our time being disappointed by inconsistencies and improbabilities. But then it also feels like a shame wasting substantial talent like Scott Glenn as this tale's dogged sheriff and the seriously underutilized Ted Levine as Monk's police contact. Levine can stretch far beyond exasperation when he gets the chance, as he does this time, and you wonder where he and the equally affecting Shalhoub could take this thing with the kind of crisp scripting seen in TV's murder-mystery heyday of "Columbo."

There, it was always just "one more thing." Here, it's never enough.

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