Monk Season 4 Review
The fourth season of Monk comes after the departure of show stalwart Bitty Schramm in the middle of season three. For a lot of the ironically compulsive fans of the series, the departure of the sassy Schramm and her replacement by the more glamorous Traylor Howard marked the end of their favourite offbeat show and the beginning of a more commercial formulaic detective show. That this didn't happen for most of the fans of the series was in large part due to the continuity of the writing and the ongoing quality of the acting and direction. The show has continued to be as interested in character as it is in murder. Season four for the most part continues the good work with the show's creator leading the team of familiar writers who find more situations for Monk's phobias and quirks including a riff on Twelve Angry Men and an episode about going to the dentist.
The season begins with some strong episodes with Jason Alexander turning up as a competing scruffy detective, John Turturro returning in a Halloween episode as Monk's brother, and best of all the brilliantly funny Mr Monk Stays in Bed where our hero struggles with a cold! Monk as a character does do a lot of surprising things in the middle of the season – working in an open plan office, flirting, and getting drunk. Some of these flights of fancy work well in the world of a murder mystery, but the middle episodes of the season do get very close to stretching the central concept of the Obsessive Compulsive Detective too far as Monk's desire for normalcy gets indulged and the result is a generic hotchpotch not unlike Diagnosis Murder with ticks. The lowest point of this poor writing is the episode about Nathalie's rich family, Mr. Monk Goes to a Wedding, where we discover that this hard-working single mum actually comes from a filthy rich upbringing. A society wedding is wrapped around this revelation and some awfully clichéd dialogue stinks the place out amongst dead gags and obvious slapstick. The usual desire for depth in the central characters is forgotten and the result is simply poor. A flashback episode soon follows, Mr Monk and Little Monk, which is another staple of US TV shows which have run out of ideas and we get an episode of dodgy 70's fashion and child actors imitating grown ones. This mid season blip is followed by head writer, Andy Breckman, getting more involved in the writing of future episodes and the result is a serious improvement in quality. The following episodes really hit their straps with impressive turns from Malcolm McDowell as an evil fashion designer, Laurie Metcalf as a lonely bag lady who seduces an amnesiac Monk and Jon Favreau recreating the dentist scene from Marathon Man. Best of all, the show returns to character based comedy and real ingenuity of plot. The final four episodes of the season bode extremely well for season five which is being shown in the US as I write. The care in these episodes is obvious with the ongoing homage to Twelve Angry Men in Mr Monk Gets Jury Duty and there is even a sub textual gag when Monk gets a pay rise and is guaranteed 16 murders a year for the next two years by the Police Commissioner and presumably the TV network too!
Monk has kept an incredibly high standard up over the last four years and it is a credit to what US TV does so well. A highly motivated team of writers provide the material for an exceptional bunch of character actors, at times the writing gets ragged and some of the key roles become a little lazy like Randy who has become little more than a comic foil but then it all picks itself up with some great pathos and depth from one of the other central players. As always Tony Shalhoub is a marvel and when in episode six he threatens to recover his quality of life and lose his eccentricities we can only hope that Monk stays ill so that Shalhoub can keep doing his thing. Monk is excellent TV which rises above the plethora of cop shows and mystery thrillers by doing the unexpected and doing it well.
Monk season four comes as a four disc set with the sixteen episodes distributed evenly across the discs. In terms of video quality the set is fine if not exceptional. The anamorphic transfer itself is okay, but some motion shake indicates that that standards conversion wasn't ideally done. The colour balance and contrast levels are fine but the look isn't as sharp as it could be. The set comes with one audio option and no subtitles, the stereo is fine and I note the R1 release of this set has the same track. The audio has no hiss or background noise with voices and music managed well.
The only extras on the discs are a trailer for Playback's other titles and two small featurettes. One featurette concentrates on the writing of the episode Mr Monk and the Big Reward and is a fascinating insight into the creative process. Andy Breckman leads the room of writers to decide the plot and outline of each episode before an individual writer fleshes it out. The second featurette is into the detective advisors on the series and their role on advising on procedure in the drama.
Monk season four is a slight improvement on the third season and recovers from a mid season trough to have some very fine episodes at the end of the run. The Playback set is probably bettered in terms of transfer by the R1 set but otherwise is almost exactly the same as that release. Monk is a marvel of modern telly, intelligent, witty, and moving and it is still going strong.