Monk Season 5 Review
The nearest TV relative to Monk is, of course, Columbo, and Peter Falk has been donning his dirty raincoat for almost forty years now whilst Tony Shalhoub has simply been shuffling and twitching for the last five. There have been times during the previous four seasons of the program when the entertainment fed to the general public felt far from filling and somewhat reheated. The switching in the middle of season three from Bitty Schramm to Traylor Howard as Monk's assistant took some bedding down and the gradual shift away from the Breckmans' writing in season four led to some creaky and poor episodes as I have mentioned before when I reviewed that season here. In season five, the Breckmans are barely in evidence in the writing after they shored up the second half of season four but the good news is that the programme didn't need them.
Season four was disappointing as the writing started messing with the central characters in ways that undermined their original interest for the audience. Monk at times became a simple eccentric rather than the pathological character who had charmed us, Natalie suddenly was a poor little rich girl, and Stottlemeyer and Fisher were made buffoons and rock stars as the script needed it. In season five, the characters are left to be as they are with any developments making sense and any innovations being well prepared for in the writing. So we are far more comfortable when Monk gets to make a friend, become an obsessive butler and meet his father. In other developments, Stottlemeyer gets to flirt and move on from his ex-wife, Fisher gets to quit again and we learn more about Natalie's background. This incremental approach yields excellent results as does the commitment to the tried and tested formula of each episode whilst the resolutions become ever more ingenious.
Starting with the excellent Mr Monk and the Actor, which reunites Shalhoub with his Big Night co-star Stanley Tucci, the season works its way through sixteen epiosdes of consistent quality and a few gems as good as anything that has come before. Tucci plays a method actor who shadows Monk in order to play him in a movie and loses his bearings on the way by becoming lost in Monk's personal tragedy. Tucci mocked up to look and dress like Monk is wonderfully acute in his observation and the episode's conclusion with Tucci and Shalhoub wrestling both made up as Monk is hilarious. Episode two is one of the best of the series with Monk losing his knack as a garbage strike takes over the city and distracts him from solving the murder of a trade union boss; Stottlemeyer's solution to Monk's befuddlement involves a clean room and one of the most iconic moments of the show so far. Mr Monk and the Big game has the detective undercover as a basketball coach investigating a teacher's murder and is one of the better episodes which build on Natalie's life and backstory. Monk is blinded in Mr Monk can't see a Thing and true to type finds relief in blindness as he ceases to worry about how things look after enjoying the extra malingering that his ailment offers him. Natalie convinces him to become a private eye in episode 5 but the only case he can get is a fender bender from Stottlemeyer's new love interest which inevitably leads to another murder. An inventive motive for elaborate killings marks Mr Monk and the Class Reunion along with some flashbacks to how he and Trudy met, and Dr Kroger's cleaner is murdered in Mr Monk gets a New Shrink. The mid season break comes with Mr Monk goes to a Rock Concert which has standout moments with Monk discovering the hell of a chemical toilet and Stottlemeyer catching Randy taking a sickie.
The final eight episodes kick off with the introduction of Mr Monk's dad after the false start in season four. Played by the gruff Dan Hedaya, Monk's dad is a far from lovable man whose reason for leaving Monk's mum is hardly endearing and who remembers his odd son as, well, odd. Episode 10 is the excellent Mr Monk and the Leper where Monk becomes part of a widow's plot to keep her husband's money and enjoys the somewhat un-PC humour of prejudice to lepers. Stottlemeyer, Randy and Natalie become suspicious when Mr Monk makes a Friend but not before Shalhoub wonderfully adds to Monk's humanity by showing how much he wants to be loved even though he doesn't believe in happy endings. The next four episodes include some of the best material of the series along with the one weak episode of this season in the Randy based Mr Monk Visits a Farm which proves that it wasn't chance that the previous episodes centred on Randy didn't work. Randy is a good comic foil but he is simply a goof with no pathos and the times he is the focus of the show it simply isn't as humane or funny. The other three episodes include a fantastically nasty Steven Weber(Jenifer) as a murderous shock jock, Monk showing that he can defeat the CSI world of high tech crime solving in Mr Monk and the really, really dead guy, and he becomes an undercover butler in the very funny Mr Monk is at your Service. The season finishes with guest turns from Charles Durning and Dan Butler, Bulldog from Frasier, in a tale of a carefully alibied assassination when Monk is forced to get treatment for a nosebleed in a hospital and finds himself next on the killer doctor's list.
Only one dodgy episode out of sixteen is a fine strike rate and the joy of Monk remains fine character actors milking the warmth and humour from its quirky basis. When a TV program gets up to this number of episodes it gains a certain cachet from the fact that the actors get to know their characters so well, it also develops the ability to be rather knowing about its formula and share this complicity with its audience. In this season, this seems to be what happens as Traylor Howard grows more pregnant and the camera angles and compositions get wackier in order to hide the fact, and eventually in Mr Monk is at your service the plot allows for her to pretend to be pregnant. A less well written and entertaining series would find this difficult to explain away but Monk simply enjoys the absurdity. Shalhoub is still immense and this is what really turns a good ensemble show into so much fun and worth even more seasons than the first five. Monk season five is top stuff.
Season five is presented on five dual layer discs in a gatefold enclosure which was not available at the time of this review. The first four discs include four episodes apiece with the final disc containing the conclusion of the series along with special features. The visual presentation is fair enough with anamorphic transfers at 1.78:1 but the image is not quite as sharp as I would have hoped - I think you can probably see some softness in the stills below and above. I think that the overall look is a little too dark and that the contrast is not graded well, see Monk's uniformly dark jacket in the first image in this review and his white suit above. It is wholly acceptable for most TVs but on larger displays you may be less impressed with the transfer.
The stereo audio track is clear and consistent with no problems in terms of mastering or the source materials, and the mixing of dialogue ensures that the witty words are never lost. Strange that surround mixes aren't available but none of the previous Monk boxsets have had them either.
In terms of extras the package is a little light with rehashed downloads from the website, Webisodes, a trailer for other Playback releases and the strange inclusion of the pilot for Psych. The webisdoes are vignettes previously available on the USATODAY website and show Monk visiting the doctor, cleaning Stottlemeyer's office, and going to the gym. They are a little corny but niftily written and the idea that Monk would alphabeticise the keys on a computer is a great one. Throwaway but fun. The Psych pilot is included here for reasons beyond me other than it's another quirky murder mystery show and I would say that its charm and appeal are rather lost on me. No featurettes with cast and crew like previous seasons and this is a shame as the change in production and writing would have been interesting to understand more with the series creators, the Breckmans, now out of the loop.
The best season since the second one and splendid evidence that there's lots more to come from Monk and co in future. When Monk is best is when the characters drive the humour and the writers show real ingenuity in the stories. Seasons three and four proved that watching Tony Shalhoub twitch his way through generic nonsense is acceptable, but season five shows that he's even better when the writing is smarter and sympathetic. Still one of the best shows on TV wherever you live, and available to buy in a competent set here.
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