A pretty good series elevated by a truly great character, “Monk” returns with a new sidekick but its old formula intact. Having amassed well-deserved accolades for Tony Shalhoub, series gets off to a nice start introducing co-star Traylor Howard, who graduates from two guys and a pizza place to working for an obsessive-compulsive detective. Breezy yet also melancholy, the show doesn’t rise to the level of obsessive compulsion but remains a welcome addition to USA’s lineup adept in tracking down viewers.
Although Bitty Schram’s departure represents a loss, dealing with her character’s exit provides a welcome dramatic and comedic jolt to open the third season. A distraught Monk (Shalhoub) can’t come to grips with the fact that assistant Sharona has moved back to New Jersey to remarry her ex, which spurs an amusing search for a replacement, as Monk explains to one befuddled candidate that the job’s hours are “9 a.m. until one of us dies.”
Unable to settle on a new aide, Monk gets drawn into a case involving Natalie (Howard), a single mom whose home has been broken into twice in rapid succession. In the course of solving that crime — always an afterthought to the character’s antics — he convinces Natalie to give up bartending and fill Sharona’s shoes. Along the way, they visit a museum and hilariously wind up inside a giant replica of the uterus.
At least initially, Howard’s addition brings an infusion of creative energy, enabling Monk to be seen through a fresh set of eyes. In a subsequent episode, for example, Natalie continuously gripes about her pathetic wages — an hour distinguished by an especially tender plot involving Monk’s late wife, exhibiting the deft mix of humor and pathos Shalhoub brings to the role.
In a peculiar way, “Monk” actually owes a considerable debt to all the detective shows that preceded it, which exhausted virtually every quirk short of mental illness. Yet for all the promotional mileage USA has wrung out of the “defective detective” line, it only demonstrates that the prescription for a hit is often surprisingly simple — requiring little more than the right actor and just a germ of inspiration.