It’s a jungle out there: The precarious labor of Monk

MacGyver isn’t the only questionable show The Girlfriend and I watch — we’re also getting close to the end of Monk, a Sherlock Holmes variant starring Tony Shalhoub as a detective with OCD. Those who aren’t familiar with the premise can read the exhaustive Wikipedia page, but in this post, I’d just like to highlight a few salient features.

The more we watch, the more bizarre the show becomes. The writers can’t seem to settle on a tone. The overall premise seems grimly humorous, but it can veer from childish antics to the most morbid sentimentality (particularly relating to Monk’s dead wife, Trudy), often within the same episode. Objectively, Monk is a miserable character, borderline mentally ill, tortured by the loss of his wife (to a car bomb that he long believed was meant for him), with no friends and no ability to live a normal life. He is surrounded by death — even when he goes on vacation, a murder inevitably occurs. Yet his foibles — he removes two eggs from his egg carton to make it an even ten! he will only drink one particular brand of bottled water! he has a list of dozens of phobias ranked by the intensity of his fear! — are the main source of comic relief.

One thing I enjoy about the show is that it is rigorously formulaic, to the point where even the characters recognize it. For instance, Monk always prefaces the solution to the case with “here’s what happened,” though at times other characters will deliver this key line (including, in one uncanny instance, a character played by Snoop Dogg, who creates a rap based on the formula). Every detail presented in the show contributes in some way to the solution of the case — in a kind of hyperbolization of the Larry David method of TV screenwriting, anything that becomes a point of focus for any length of time is wrapped up into a neat little bow by the end. (Once we noticed this, it really opened up our possibilities for feeling smart by guessing the solution.)

Appropriately, though, the devil is in the details. For instance, Monk is obsessed with the death of his wife, but one of the recurring tropes of the show is that a husband needs no more motive to kill his wife than the sheer fact that she’s his wife. The murdered wife is, as Anna Kornbluh pointed out to me, the most frequent formula in the show, and though there are cases when the husband is after an inheritance or is having an affair, in the vast majority of cases no motivation is given other than the marriage itself — and no character ever questions this.

In the proud tradition of detective stories, Monk is not actually a police officer, but a private contractor — yet in a strange twist, he used to be on the force but was discharged following his mental breakdown in the wake of his wife’s death. In the early seasons, he’s continually seeking to be reinstated, but that fades away after a while (perhaps because it became clear to the writer that there was no convincing reason for his request to be denied). And while he sometimes takes on private cases, he almost never follows the familiar pattern of competing with the police to solve a case — instead, he is hired by the police as a “consultant” for essentially every murder case. Monk is quite literally a privatized police detective, then. Interestingly, his precarious employment occasionally becomes a plot point, though it mostly serves as a metaphor for getting the series renewed (as when the department guarantees him two years with thirteen murders each).

Then there is the matter of Monk’s assistants, both of whom are single mothers who are absolutely devoted to him. In the first two seasons, his assistant is Sharona, who was for some reason a “Jersey” type of character with a thick accent and flamboyant dress — after a contract dispute with the actress, she was abruptly replaced by Natalie, a much less forceful character whose sole consistent personality trait is her loyalty to Monk. Monk pays them poorly, nickel-and-dimes them at every opportunity (like not paying for the wipes they must constantly have on-hand), shows no respect for any personal boundaries, etc., etc. Each assistant threatens to “go on strike” at least once, but this is always played up for comic effect (i.e., they still follow him around everywhere, but make him get his own wipes).

The premise seems to be that they are lucky to be working with such a great man, and in fact both assistants start to take some responsibility for the business end of things — finding clients, pushing Monk to take cases he’s inclined to turn down, shaking down the police for back pay or a raise. The contrast between Sharona and Natalie is interesting in this regard. Sharona actually started to pick up on Monk’s method and solved some of the murders herself, whereas Natalie is in a more purely supplemental role (she is sometimes capable of remarkable bravery, but the intellectual work belongs to Monk alone). Surely it’s a parable of our times that a labor dispute with the actress who played Sharona led not only to her firing, but to the downgrading of her replacements’ working conditions and responsibilities.

(A sidenote: when Sharona was written out, they had to change the title sequence to erase the many scenes featuring her. The Girlfriend notes that they did keep one trace of her, a scene where her hair is just barely within the frame — this strange inconsistency bothered her, until she noticed that the clip is synchronized with the following lyrics in the theme song: “No one seems to care.” Take that, Sharona! Here you thought you had leverage, but no one gives a fuck that we dumped you!)

So then, Monk presents us with a world in which a mentally ill man whose most intimate connection is with a woman he has hired to take care of him relies on the incompetence of the public sector and on an appallingly high murder rate for his income. It is a world characterized by casual hostility toward women, so that the most treasured bonds of affection are a kind of breeding ground for murder and this is treated as a matter of course by all concerned. This situation as a whole is apparently ripe for screwball comedy, and in fact the show can sometimes seem like it’s written for children. And here’s the real punchline: Monk is the most successful cable drama of all time! Such is our Zeitgeist.

5 thoughts on “It’s a jungle out there: The precarious labor of Monk

  1. The most successful cable drama of our time is an escape into tedium. Great. I gave up watching Monk somewhere in the fourth season; the writers have about three jokes, which they try to give as much screen time as is reasonably possible and then five minutes more, and after a while it’s just not worth the effort to keep mashing fast-forward.

  2. When I spent more summers with my parents, my mom loved watching this show and it became sort of a family fixture. I think that tonal confusion is part of USA’s methodology for whatever reason. Every show on that network, even ones with as much blatant “adult” material as Burn Notice have this odd affect, as if they’re simultaneously a comedy and a drama, and possibly written for children.

    I always thought that the extreme non-character that is Natalie was interesting, precisely because Sharona was so over-the-top, and every other character is over the top. I had never connected that to the writers giving a middle finger to the actress who played Sharona, but I think the fact that her entire existence as a character is really just the existence of her job fits well with that notion.

    Did it seem to you that as the show went on, the jokes about Monk’s “quirks” became less and less sympathetic? It seemed to my mom and I that there was a tonal shift over time from Monks as basically competent with lovable, ridiculous quirks, to competent only as a crime-solver, with absurd schadenfreude-inspiring quirks. We watched them as they aired, so it’s sometimes hard to discern actual change from a joke seeming less funny and more mean-spirited simply by way of repetition when earlier episodes aren’t as fresh in mind.

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