The Perennial Appeal of “Monk”

June 14, 2013

No matter what I do in my career, the credit that always grabs a stranger’s attention and brings a smile is my eight years on “Monk”.  I would have expected this to diminish as the years pass.  After all, our last episode aired in 2009.  But every time someone says, ”A writer?  Have you written anything I’ve read?” the “Monk” years quickly dominate the conversation, not my books or games or my time on “White Collar”.  (By the way, that’s a stupid question.  I have no idea what or even if you read.)

True, the show is still on TV, like “I Love Lucy”.  But I think there may be more to Adrian Monk’s durability than the need for cable TV to fill its 24-hour schedule.  People have an attachment to the show that makes us often feel unworthy – grateful but unworthy.

The main reason for all the love is undoubtedly Tony Shalhoub.  We were very lucky to get him.  He was originally unavailable and we cast someone else.  But when Tony became free, the network actually paid off the previous actor and put Tony in.  Bad for the actor, who shall remain nameless, but good for everyone else.  Tony played OCD for the reality of it, without a lot of ticks or mannerisms, which somehow made it funnier.  And his vulnerability made you laugh at Monk even as you cheered him on.

A second plus is the family-friendly nature of the show.  No real violence, except now and then some blood spatter.  No language or sexual situations.  We snagged some really great guest stars because they’d sat down with their kids and watched the show and wanted to become part of the Monk story.

Other reasons for our longevity may not be so obvious.  For example, the show didn’t change much.  Three of our four main actors were there from the pilot to the finale.  And each episode was pretty self-contained.  You can enjoy them in any order.  No one has a season-long arc that had to be explained before you can catch up.

Also, we were low on pop culture references or trendy storylines.  This was on purpose.  Andy Breckman, the show’s creator, wanted it to have an undated quality.  And when we did slip in a real name, we tried to make it timeless.  For example, Monk’s idea of a femme fatale is Angie Dickenson.  Not a bad choice, but not really pop culture.

We felt the same way about technology.  No one on our show ever tapped a keyboard to solve a case or relied on DNA to set up the final scene.  For one thing, it seemed like a lazy way of getting to your suspect.  It wasn’t the Monk way.

Fans will often mention Sunday afternoons when they’ll accidentally watch one “Monk” after another, as if the show were somehow hypnotic.  We never intended to have this effect on people, but there was some actual thinking behind that effect.

“Monk” had fewer scenes than other shows – about twenty per episode as opposed to thirty or forty for the typical cop show.  We also wrote less dialogue.  A “Monk” script would have 52 pages on average, while a CSI script has over 60.  We also tried to avoid using hand-held cameras, which are everywhere nowadays.  The net result was a show that you could relax into, that slowed you down and gently invited you inside.  No wonder it results in hypnotism.

Much of this, of course, is not translatable when you go from a TV show to a novel.  But some of it is.  The quirky, gentle humor is still there.  The flawed, vulnerable and maddening hero is there.  The quirky, twisty stories are there.  Plus the brilliance of our San Francisco version of the great Sherlock Holmes.

And I guess that brings me to my answer.  Why has “Monk” stayed so popular after so many years?  Because it’s another version of Sherlock Holmes.  Like the original, it was made to be timeless and to appeal in the young detective in all of us.

And because of Tony Shalhoub.