Echoes of “Columbo” permeate “Monk,” USA’s new series about an obsessive-compulsive detective, but the breezy gait of the storytelling, the nicely explained quirks of a brilliant mind and Tony Shalhoub’s sterling characterization in the lead role make this a fine ratings contender in the season to come. The two-hour pilot is a bit old-fashioned in its structure and the manner in which an investigation plays out, but it’s sufficiently up to date in characters and lifestyles to warrant that viewers stay tuned in when “Monk” goes to hourlong episodes Fridays at 10.
Shalhoub, currently bug-eyed on the bigscreen in “Men in Black II,” gives Adrian Monk a creepy depth in the pilot; as information about this one-time ace detective on the San Francisco police force slowly seeps out, audiences are likely to feel sympathy and want to offer support. Whether he’s likable remains to be seen.
Monk has been on suspension for three years, beginning about a year after his wife of seven years, Trudy, was killed in a car bombing. Her unsolved murder haunts him. Whether that has lead directly to his fears — heights, crowds, germs and milk — is almost inconsequential: Monk is getting therapy, and when pressed, there is the possibility he will rise to the occasion.
Having assisted in a murder investigation in Santa Clara, Monk is called to S.F. to probe the attempted assassination of mayoral candidate and big-shot businessman Warren St. Claire (Michael Hogan). Monk goes nowhere without his nurse, Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram), who is overly impressed that nothing goes over his head — he notices everything. She is, however, perturbed by his obsessing on that of little concern — the pilot light on the stove or a painting in an office, for example.
Less impressed with Monk are Warren’s wife, Miranda (Gail O’Grady), and Jesse Goodman (Vincent Gale), St. Claire’s right-hand man in business. They rightly figure he is on to their furtive romance, and their defensive tones suggest they are somehow related to the shootings. But like many of the other characters in the script by Andy Breckman (“Rat Race”), they enter the fray and disappear; he has a pailful of pale red herrings (ah, “Columbo”) and ensures that “Monk” never gets too far from a chance to observe nervous ticks and dead-on perceptions.
As the investigation proceeds, SFPD Capt. Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) is alternately infuriated and delighted by Monk’s presence. His hunches in a car crash play out, and still he is sent to his room — literally — where he pours over newspaper clippings and photos relating to his wife’s killing. It leads back to the scene of her death where he again stumbles on a clue in the current case. Monk has the parties on the stage at the time of the shooting reconvene (oh so “Columbo”), and after the usual confession, the story gets a whole new twist that eventually leads to Monk confronting and even conquering a few fears.
As Sharona, Schram delivers a multilayered perf that, if explored, will make “Monk” much more interesting as a series. Sharona is oddly caught between wanting to help and wanting to run away screaming; her compulsion is actually an addiction to Monk. She has an 11-year-old son, and wisely, the filmmakers never position her as a mother figure to two — she’s a caretaker, yes, but her relationship with Monk is too tangled to easily explain.
Other thesps in the pilot dart in and out, often only to quickly move along the plot, so it’s unclear exactly who’s staying for the series and who’s leaving. Levine’s Stottlemeyer would be fun to see more of, as would former “NYPD Blue” star O’Grady. Deputy Mayor Sheldon Burger (Rob Labelle) seems ripe to be juiced for laughs.
Dean Parisot’s direction is splendid throughout as he establishes a tone and sticks with it, never getting too jokey or edge-of-the-seat dramatic. Jerry Zielinski’s photography and Joe D’Augustine’s editing are crisp and fluid. Jeff Beal’s swinging acoustic guitar theme is great, though the show could use more music throughout.