Quick, without looking it up, answer this question: How long ago did Monk’s series finale air?
It may seem like the show never left, given all it inspired. Debuting on USA in 2002, Monk’s light-hearted, character-driven detective stories were a progenitor to what came to be known as the network’s “characters welcome”/“blue sky” era. By the end of the decade, USA was filling multiple nights of primetime with the kind of low-stakes genre shows the major networks were largely abandoning. As ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox tried shifting to darker, edgier dramas, USA countered with Psych, Burn Notice, Royal Pains, White Collar, and the recently rediscovered Suits. If it was fast-paced and fun, you could find it on USA.
Believe it or not, Monk took its final bow on December 4, 2009, right as the “blue sky” wave was rising. Granted, it’s been in syndication ever since—a staple of the likes of Cozi TV and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries—but the show is still frozen in time, further back than you might think. The world has changed a lot since the Monk finale. Smartphones and social media were in their infancy when the series ended. Barack Obama had only been president for a year. COVID-19 was a decade away.
As Monk fans might expect, COVID looms large over the new reunion movie Mr. Monk’s Last Case, debuting December 8 on Peacock. The film opens with a clip from the show’s early years, reminding viewers what the whole deal is with Adrian Monk, played as always by the great Tony Shaloub (who won three Emmys in the role). Monk is a brilliant detective who left the San Francisco Police Department after his wife was murdered, becoming an eccentric police consultant while struggling—with the help of his eternally patient colleagues—to overcome his obsessive-compulsive disorder and a wealth of phobias.
The 2009 series finale ended with Monk finally solving the mystery of his wife’s murder and seemingly getting on a path to better mental health. But as Mr. Monk’s Last Case begins, he’s slipped back into bad habits, rattled by COVID—the worst thing to happen to an incorrigible germaphobe—and by the ways his old friends have moved on with their lives.
Inevitably, most of those friends return for the movie. Monk’s stepdaughter Molly, whom he met for the first time in the series finale (but now played by Caitlin McGee instead of Alona Tal), is about to get married. The wedding guests are supposed to include Monk’s former assistant Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard), the former SFPD lieutenant Randy Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford) and Monk’s former SFPD partner and occasional boss Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine). Then a mysterious death scotches the ceremony, and suddenly Monk has work to do.
The details of that death (including the victim) are best left unspoiled, but it’s okay to say that the man most likely responsible for orchestrating the crime is Rick Eden (James Purefoy), an Elon Musk-like billionaire obsessively pursuing a dream of space travel no matter who he hurts. Eden is an ideal Monk villain: too arrogant to see how a fussy little weirdo might pick away doggedly at his master plan.
Eden also exemplifies how Mr. Monk’s Last Case tries to split the difference between dragging its characters into 2023—with nods to the pandemic and to super-powerful tech bros—and giving fans the version of Monk they loved 14 years ago. The show’s creator, Andy Breckman, is still running the franchise, and he understands that a fully functional Adrian Monk goes against what this series was always about. It’s Monk’s pathology that brings the pathos—and the humor. (A sequence where our hero sneaks into one of Eden’s parties as a bartender and then is too much of a perfectionist to finish making a single cocktail provides some classic Monk comedy.)
Breckman hits the sentimental side of the show hard toward the end of the movie, reemphasizing one of the series’ main themes: that even a broken person, with a little help, can help make the world feel a little saner. Back in the 2000s, Monk’s warm heart provided a respite from the gloominess and vulgarity of TV’s antihero obsession. These days, the show seems more of a piece with the likes of Ted Lasso and Schitt’s Creek: feel-good television for desperate times.
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