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Did the world really need another series about a brilliant detective in 2002? Arguable. But as USA Network proved, what it did need was the first series ever about a brilliant detective who just so happens to be obsessive-compulsive. Since then, USA hasn’t been able to wash its hands of “Monk” — not that it wants to. The series brings in around 5 million viewers each week, and tonight it hits a landmark 100th episode — just in time for what could be its final season.
Arriving at the century mark is a rare feat in cable television, where the word “season” can be applied loosely. But USA elevated “Monk” after three years on the air when it used the show to anchor its “Characters Welcome” branding strategy, which helped the network out of an identity crisis. Six years and seven seasons along, “Monk” enjoys not just consistent popularity, but it has also become a dependable launch pad for the network’s other quirky original properties, such as “Psych” and “Burn Notice.”
“Having ‘Monk’ has made my job at USA a whole lot easier,” says president of NBC Universal cable entertainment and cable studio Bonnie Hammer. “It was really the chief icon in USA’s wheel in a whole lot of ways. During a period when we were all working to cement our brand and figure out how to make the channel more fun and less predictable, ‘Monk’ supplied us with this fresh, amazing hit — and really the perfect filter for what we wanted to be.”
Yet life for the Universal Media Studios production beyond its current 16-episode seventh season remains tenuous. Not because ratings have slipped; the show pulled in a 3.3 household rating last season and is holding fairly steady with a 3.2 this season, according to Nielsen Media. Instead, as industry sources indicate, it’s become increasingly difficult for USA to justify the show’s price tag — even a highly popular mainstay like “Monk” — given cable’s modest viewing levels. “Monk,” effectively, has priced itself out of its market.
“We have to be thinking this could be it,” says Jeff Wachtel, executive vp original programming at USA and co-head of original content for Universal Cable Prods. “Then again, at this time last year, we thought there was no chance we’d pull off a Season 7.”
For those who haven’t been compulsively checking in, “Monk” is the ongoing story of the show’s namesake detective-turned-crime-consultant, Adrian Monk, played by three-time Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub (see page 18 for more). He suffers from OCD, along with a series of connected phobias — but his chronic anxiety and neurological issues help him solve crimes for the San Francisco police department, often with comic effect, occasionally with wrenching poignancy.
“As both a professional and an emotional experience, ‘Monk’ is as good as it gets,” Wachtel says. “It provided the best example of a show’s entire DNA during its first 30 seconds that I’ve ever seen. We see the dead body, the cops, nobody’s talking, then Adrian Monk strides in and announces, ‘The stove.’ Somebody asks, ‘The stove is responsible?’ And he says, ‘No. My stove. I think I left the pilot light on.’ It supplied everything we needed to know about the show right there.”
The dramedic hybrid quality of the show has kept it creatively self-renewing, and that originality is what sold USA in the first place, acknowledges Hammer. “We loved that it wasn’t only procedural,” she recalls, “and at the same time it wasn’t dark. It’s all perfectly character-centric.”
NBC Universal loves “Monk” today, but the company is the show’s adoptive parents. The series was created at ABC Studios, landing at USA after the Alphabet passed on ordering it for its own network. But then ABC had a change of heart and ran episodes in 2002 and 2003 after they premiered on USA. Following the 2004 NBC-Universal merger, which meant a change of hands for USA, “Monk” became property of the Peacock.
Showrunner Andy Breckman (who created the show with executive producer David Hoberman) suggests the show’s appeal has to do with writers who have an intimate understanding of Monk’s idiosyncrasies. “As someone who suffers from some of the same issues as Monk, I can tell you this show is relatable to the masses,” Breckman says. “I’ve never met anyone who was 100% neurosis-free. I think even Gandhi had to turn the light switch on and off 10 times.”
Over the years, “Monk’s” popularity has leeched beyond basic cable’s borders. It has sold to an estimated 202 countries, spun off six “Monk” novels (the seventh will publish in December), generated significant interest in the full-season DVD sets and miscellaneous tie-in merchandise, including bobblehead dolls and a coffee mug listing the 38 phobias suffered by Mr. Monk. Come Christmas, fans will be able to get their (sanitized) hands on the “Monk”-branded “OCD Kit,” which will include a shoe buffer, a shoe wipe, a lint brush, hand sanitizer, hand wipes and stain removers.
Still, Breckman says, the show’s success is really owed to one man: “It all begins with Tony.”
By that he means Shalhoub, whose work on the set is so respected that executive producer and frequent “Monk” director Randy Zisk admits, “Sometimes I’m in awe of him. He’s just amazing. He puts so much heart and emotion into the work. That and Andy’s writing are what has made ‘Monk’ what it is.”
“This show obviously lives and dies with Tony,” adds Jason Gray-Stanford, who portrays cast regular Lt. Randy Disher, “and if he didn’t supply an incredibly interesting character, we wouldn’t still be here.”
Still, Breckman confesses that after six seasons, keeping things fresh isn’t as easy as it looks. “That’s where the challenge now lies,” he says. “Tony and the cast and our writers try to find new ways to do the same thing over and over. With Tony, it’s like watching a great jazz musician hitting great new notes every time out. But it also makes the writers dig a little deeper. They work their hearts out because they don’t want to disappoint the actors.”
As for cancellation, Hammer insists Season 8 is not out of the question. “Never say never,” she says. “This is, after all, the series that keeps on giving.”
That works just fine for Breckman, who in this case remains optimistic. “Maybe because I don’t know any better,” he says. “I like to think we have another year in us, and I know we could do some great shows. But I can’t obsess over it.”
Then again, maybe he could.
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