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In 2002, USA Network was on a sci-fi track with the successful launch of its first original series, “The Dead Zone,” when “Monk” came along.
The dramedy starring Tony Shalhoub as an obsessive-compulsive detective ushered USA’s new identity as a destination for lighter takes on popular franchises centered on quirky characters and became the first building block in the network’s current slate of series that has propelled it to the top of the cable ratings.
Now the veteran is heading into its final season, which promises to finally solve the ongoing mystery of the murder of Monk’s (Shalhoub) wife and to bring back for closure Monk’s first assistant, the sassy Sharona, who disappeared abruptly during Season 3 over a salary dispute between the show’s producers and actress Bitty Schram.
Neither of the two topics are even mentioned in the season opener, which plays as a regular standalone episode.
The season premieres of “Monk” traditionally feature some of the show’s most memorable guest stints, including Jason Alexander as a rival PI in Season 4, Stanley Tucci as an actor playing Monk in Season 5 and Sarah Silverman as Monk’s obsessed fan in Season 6.
This time around, Elizabeth Perkins delivers a convincing performance as Christine Rapp, the star of Monk’s favorite childhood TV show whose tell-all book draws death threats. Following an assassination attempt, Monk is assigned to protect her.
As it often is with “Monk,” the mystery is pretty thin: The outcome becomes transparent 20 minutes into the episode.
But luckily, “Monk” is not your average detective drama and very few tune in for the crime investigation. It’s all about three-time Emmy winner Shalhoub, who has the character of Monk nailed down.
The episode does a good job showcasing the show’s biggest star. Shalhoub is in virtually every scene, while the always-reliable supporting players Ted Levine and Jason Gray-Stanford get very little screen time.
But while Shalhoub has proven solid improvisational skills in the role, it sometimes feels too much, with stretched-out, self-indulgent gags. The final season premiere is no exception with several such moments, including Monk’s awkwardly long assessing of the purpose of a ceiling mirror above Rapp’s bed and equally excessive hugging moment when, in a hallucination, he appears in a scene of his favorite show, a Brady Bunch-esque family sitcom.
So, in its final season, “Monk” stays close to the formula that made it successful, offering more of the same.
Which is exactly how its adversed-to-change lead character would like it.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7
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