williamallenpepper

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SHERLOCK V. MONK

I’m kind of nerdy.

But if you know me or have read the blather bullshit pithy nuggets in this space,you already knew that.

One outlet for my nerdiness is the fact that every Friday night for, like, eight seasons, I tuned in to the USA network to watch “Monk.” The show’s been off the air for years now, but I still hear the theme song in my head sometimes. Here it is, from memory:

It’s a jungle out there
Disorder and confusion everywhere
No one seems to care, but I do.
Hey, who’s in charge here?

It’s a jungle out there.
Poison in the very air you breathe.
You know what’s in the water that you drink?
Well, I do.
It’s a-mazing

People think I’m crazy
’cause I’m worried all the time.
If you paid attention, you’d be worried too.
You better pay attention, or this world you love so much
Might just kill you.

I could be wrong now.
But I don’t think so.

It’s a jungle out there.
Yeah, it’s a jungle out there…

The show was a deft mixture of drama and light comedy. Adrien Monk, played by Tony Shalhoub, was a former San Francisco police detective forced to retire after the death of his journalist wife, Trudy, sent him over the edge. Always obsessive compulsive, her death left him fearful of just about everything (germs, the outdoors, milk, countless other things). He was still a brilliant detective though, in the mold of Sherlock Holmes, who can solve crimes no one else can. He works as a consulting detective and every episode, at least early on, features a “man dies in an empty, locked room” type mystery that Monk unravels, with a big reveal at the end when Monk announces “Here’s what happened…” then spools out some amazing solution (my spoilery favorite: the astronaut who murders his mistress in her house while he’s up in space)

The only mystery Monk can’t solve is how his wife died, which is the one thing that both devastates him and keeps him going. He has an assistant who is there to get in trouble, ask questions as the surrogate for the audience, and help the anti-social, awkward Monk function in the real world.

“Sherlock”, the BBC update that brings the classic characters Sherlock Holmes and Watson into the present day, is a show about a self-described “high functioning sociopath” who is a consulting detective and solves crimes no one else can solve with the help of an assistant, Watson naturally. I was skeptical these classic literature icons could work in an update, but the show is excellent.

The modern Holmes character, as conceived by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who, in this post’s obligatory Doctor Who reference, are show runner and frequent writer, respectively, for that show too) has a lot in common with Monk. Both shows are similar in that they strive to both densely plotted mysteries and in-depth character studies. Both succeed mightily in those efforts.

Up to a point.

Early Monk was awesome. Locked room mysteries. The astronaut murderer. The professor who kills someone while teaching a class. The DJ who kills someone while he’s on the air. And great character stuff. Shalhoub walked that line between comedy and drama, dipping a toe over the line on whichever side the story called for. But…

As the Monk series progressed, the mysteries suffered a little. It became more about the character stuff. That was enough to sustain it for a while; the performances and the writing were that good. But then, after a while, the “character stories” kind of slid into just “what whacky situation can we put Monk in this week”. The show was good until the end, but that was after being great early on.

I worry about Sherlock going down that road. The first season launched with an amazing opener, “A Study in Pink”, an excellent balance between character and mystery, The next two stories were solid mysteries. Seasons two and three, though, while excellent, are slowly becoming more about the mystique of the character of Sherlock Holmes and less about giving the audience a good mystery to puzzle through. (The big exception: Sherlock’s dive off a building in front of a street full of witnesses that climaxed season 2. A real head scratcher, but I’m not sure it’s ever really been fully explained and that the explanation given is all that plausible.)

Season three, just concluded, really seems to be more about “look how cool Sherlock is” than about giving us great puzzles. Some of the solutions to the mysteries have an air of “oh, let’s just say something here so we can get back to Sherlock and Watson bickering”. The character stuff is still great, don’t get me wrong. Moriarty was a great character, gone too soon, (and maybe coming back? Mixed feelings on that. Strains credibility to do that.) The mysteries are still okay, but I really kind of wish the mysteries would go back to being great.

But I’ll still watch. I’m invested. I’m looking forward to season 4. “Here’s the thing,” as Monk would say, “the game is on,” as Holmes would say.

See what I did there? That’s nerd loyalty for you.

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