Monk, “Mr. Monk Goes Back to School”

But they’re even.

By Dan Wiencek
June 22, 2003

They changed the fucking theme.

God, I’m so pissed. Not just that they changed it, though that’s bad enough. The original Monk theme was catchy and wry and very un-flashy, just the kind of thing a Willie Nelson fan like Monk would approve of. No, they didn’t just get rid of it, they replaced it with … a Randy Newman song. I accept that Newman’s albums are capable of wit and insight—I haven’t gone anywhere near them myself, but I hear it from enough people I respect that I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt—but as a “soundtrack” composer he’s gone so far into by-the-numbers hackery it seems impossible there are still people in Hollywood dim enough to be suckered by his reputation. They might just as well have gone with a Dianne Warren number, and believe me, I never thought I’d say that.

This episode begins, as many have, Columbo-style, with a typically waxy Andrew McCarthy getting snuggly in the front seat of a car with a Cute Young Thing, who stops him to lay down the Tell Your Wife About Us Or It’s Over ultimatum. The next morning, McCarthy’s school teacher is proctoring an SAT exam when Cute Young Thing’s body lands on his car with a loud crash, apparently the result of a suicide. It doesn’t occur to McCarthy’s criminal mastermind to feign concern, but even the best and brightest make mistakes.

If the setup is pretty pedestrian, things perk up immediately once Monk and Sharona appear, locked in battle over a chessboard Monk insists on arranging with laser-like neatness. Sharona licking her own queen to keep Monk from capturing it was priceless, and the ensuing dialogue was even better: “You’re sexually harassing every piece on this board!” A phone call from Keiko O’Brien, fresh from Deep Space Nine and an old friend of Monk’s late wife Trudy, calls and asks for Monk’s help in solving the unlikely suicide. The school in question was Trudy’s alma mater, making him so eager to help he even refuses to take a fee. Poor Sharona.

We then check in with Capt. Stottlemeyer at the clock tower whence the gal took her fatal plunge, and it’s funny to observe how his relationship with Monk has spooked him; hearing that Monk is below, he immediately asks Lt. Disher what details he’s overlooked. For one thing, no English professor would use the wrong form of “its/it’s” on a suicide note, and as Monk correctly notes, most suicides don’t leave notes anyway. (You murderers out there planning on staging fake suicides would do well to keep that in mind.) Something is definitely fishy, so Keiko gives Monk the chance to sub for the deceased teacher until he gathers the evidence he needs to crack the case.

Stupid contrivances like that would normally bother me, but Monk tends to reward them with delicious bits of comic business, and here we’re treated with the spectacle of Monk attempting to write his name on the blackboard. We see every merciless second of it: his numerous tries at drawing a perfectly circular period, tracing a coffee mug for the “o,” and flurries of erasings and second-guessings. Monk’s near-paralysis after having an eraser flung at him is similarly priceless, and I enjoyed Sharona getting in that fat little thug’s face; it’s only too bad she couldn’t just have punched him out. (Bully issues? Me?)

The solution of the mystery—McCarthy draped his ex-lover’s corpse on the campus clock’s minute hand, from whence it slid off at the appropriate interval—was far-fetched even by Monk’s relaxed standards, but Monk is best appreciated for the journey, not the destination. In that vein, two other aspects of this story stand out. One was a brief snippet of dialogue between Monk and McCarthy (his character’s name is Derek Philby, but I don’t care, he’ll always be Andrew McCarthy to me) that called to mind the hilarious, Nobel Prize-worthy exchange from last season’s finale, in which a sociopathic child engages Monk in a duel of “Pete and Re-peat” from which the detective simply cannot extricate himself (the “But they’re even” conversation, if you forgot.) The other is the continued delicate treatment of Monk’s beloved Trudy. In most other shows, the device of the deceased wife/grieving widower would be unbearably treacly, and even in Monk it skirts the line: Monk impossibly idealizes Trudy, but his pain at her loss is still so fresh we forgive him for it, and the scenes where Monk mourns her are played so well by Shalhoub they never become maudlin. They tend to be have no words, just conflicting waves of sadness and joy playing across Monk’s child-like face, as was tonight’s closing shot of Monk beside Trudy’s favorite tree. Nice.

In all, while this wasn’t the strongest episode yet, there’s no reason to think Monk will fall into any kind of sophomore slump. It’s great to have everyone back again—now if we could just bring the old theme back …