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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ormally in a review like this – one written about the final season of a series – I’d say, “This isn’t the place to start if you’ve never watched [insert show title here] before.” But with “Monk,” there isn’t any real reason why you shouldn’t. You’ll “get it” even if you start watching with this DVD. Of course, the show was on the air for eight seasons, so chances are you’ve already been exposed to some of it, somewhere along the way. You may even be like me – someone who’s only watched the show intermittently over the years. If so, then you know the basic premise of the obsessive-compulsive detective, and the ongoing backstory of how the murder of Monk’s wife Trudy caused him to cave in as a human being. In this final season, Monk finally solves that most important and personal of cases, but more on that later.
“Monk” is never going to go down as one of the great cop series of the ‘00s – not in a decade that produced fare like “The Shield” and “The Wire.” But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the most reliably entertaining series of the decade. It’s the TV equivalent of comfort food, and there aren’t many shows you can say that about anymore. Now there’s one less. Likewise, Tony Shalhoub is never going to garner the same kind of critical respect bestowed upon actors like Michael Chiklis and James Gandolfini, because his performance was more often than not played for comedy, and that’s a huge shame, because if you see enough of this series, you begin to know that his work is every bit as calculated and driven as the Bryan Cranstons and the Jon Hamms; all this despite three Emmys, which goes to show that awards probably don’t mean all that much.
Here the show operates with a mostly business as usual agenda, although from as quickly as Episode Two, “Mr. Monk and the Foreign Man,” you can see the seeds are being planted for the end of the season. In it, Monk meets a kindly African (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of “Lost”) whose wife was killed in a hit and run accident while she was visiting San Francisco. Monk immediately bonds with the man and is determined to get to the bottom of her senseless death. Later in the season, in “Mr. Monk Goes to Group Therapy,” Monk’s HMO informs him that it’s capping his individual therapy sessions, so he’s forced into group. The fact that the group members keep getting bumped off one by one leads to one of the more interesting twists in the season. No doubt a season highlight is “Mr. Monk and Sharona,” which obviously sees the return of Bitty Schram, who was so popular as Monk’s nurse for the first two and a half years of the show. In “Mr. Monk and the Badge,” Monk is finally allowed to be a cop again, only to discover it’s maybe not what he really wanted. The title of that episode ends up being more prescient than you could guess for the story’s climax, which is a real nail biter. Indeed, one of the many things that’s great about “Monk” is its ability to surprise in the most unlikely of places.
Creator Andy Breckman admits that for this final season, the writers went back to the board and scoured it for all the unused ideas from the past seven years, which he compares to going back through your hotel room before you’re ready to check out, just to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. As a result, the season features such self-explanatory fare as “Mr. Monk Goes Camping,” “Mr. Monk and the Dog,” and “Happy Birthday Mr. Monk,” which is another great installment, as Monk continually thwarts his assistant Natalie’s (the lovely Traylor Howard) attempts to throw him a surprise party. The lengths to which she must go have to be seen to be believed. One of the best installments, “Mr. Monk is Someone Else,” sees the FBI asking Monk to impersonate his doppelgänger, a thuggish hitman. But what happens when Monk doesn’t want to leave the attitude behind after the case is closed? No season of “Monk” would be complete without a cache of noteworthy guest stars, and here we get Elizabeth Perkins as a burnt out former child TV star, Meat Loaf as the proprietor of a voodoo shop, Jay Mohr as an obnoxious attorney, Dylan Baker as a seedy theatre critic, as well as Daniel Stern, Kelly Carlson, Bernie Kopell, John Carroll Lynch, Jack Wagner, Teri Polo, Craig T. Nelson and plenty more.
The season gives endings to everyone, which also amount to new beginnings for most. Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) and Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford) both find love in unexpected places. The former falls for Virginia Madsen, and the latter falls for…well, that would be telling. Pretty much every episode is a keeper, but the two-part finale titled “Mr. Monk and the End” is no doubt the season – if not the series – standout. It gracefully ties the entire eight years together, and wraps it all up with a nice, but not entirely tidy, bow. If you’ve not seen it, I don’t want to spoil too much, yet it’s safe to say that Trudy’s (Melora Hardin) murder is finally solved, but not without massive complications along the way, including the poisoning of Monk, which brings to mind the classic film noir “D.O.A.” Shalhoub is on fire here, especially in Part Two, where at the start, after discovering a crucial piece of evidence, he has a breakdown in his living room in front of Natalie. There’s some powerful, moving stuff on display, and it proves that “Monk” isn’t always a comedy, and knows how to rise to the dramatic occasion when the situation calls for it. Further, in an age where so many series finales are needlessly obtuse, this one works without leaving viewers scratching their heads, which, for a show like “Monk,” is as it should be.
Hopefully this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Adrian Monk. The ending is more than open-ended enough to allow for the occasional reunion movie, which, with any luck, we’ll be seeing in a few years time. Keep your wipes handy and your suits ordered.
Special Features: One wishes, given that this is the big finish, there was more here, but we’ll have to make do with what’s served up. There’s a lengthy tour of the set, given by co-producer Doug Nabors, as well as brief interviews with Shalhoub, Howard, Gray-Stanford and Breckman. A featurette called “Mr. Monk Says Goodbye” is nice, but all too short. Probably the highlight is a video commentary for the two-part finale with Shalhoub, Breckman and director Randall Zisk. The season sets for this show have never been jam-packed with extras and this is no exception. I suspect hardcore fans will be annoyed that the “Little Monk” webisodes produced last year weren’t included for posterity’s sake.