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Monk is a detective show on TV, starring Tony Shalhoub.  The second season started on Friday.  This proved to be the most watched premier in the history of basic cable television. 

Monk has OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder.  He is terrified of germs, heights, crowds, small spaces, animals and most humans.  There is a psychiatrist in Switzerland who could help him.  But Monk will never know.  "I don’t fly.”" 

In a recent episode, Monk was obliged to inform a secretary that her boss had been murdered.  She burst into tears and asked if she could have one of Monk’s tissues.  "Oh, no,” he replied sweetly, "I only have three left.”"

This is funny because it demolishes the chivalric ideal that gentlemen must come to the aid of a woman in distress.  But the joke within the joke is that Monk knows at any given moment exactly how many tissues he has at his disposal.  He counts everything.

In real life, OCD is not a pleasant condition.  It has been called ‘insanity with insight’ or ‘the doubting disease.’  Dr. Bruce Hyman, director, OCD Resource Center of South Florida says, "It is a living hell for those who have it."”  Happily, OCD is relatively rare.   Apparently, one in 50 people are so afflicted. 

This raises the question why this show is so very successful.  Forty-nine in 50 people might be expected to recoil from this demonstration of neurosis with annoyance or distaste. 

But there is another reason the mystery is a mystery.  TV detectives are often paragons of competence.  Mannix, Peter Gunn, Kojak were all masterful males.  Magnum PI, the Rockford files and Columbo had notes of self deprecation but they did not exhibit psychiatric symptoms (unless you count that rain coat). 

David Thorburn says,

Cop and private eye shows are fables of justice, heroism and deviancy, symbolically or imaginatively "policing" the unstable boundaries that define public or consensus ideas about crime, urban life, gender norms, the health or sickness of our institutions.

But I don’’t think that’s what Monk is about.  There are unstable boundaries here, but they do not apply to public ideas and institutions.  In Monk’’s case, what’’s in question are the boundaries of the self.  Monk can’t tell where the self is open or closed, safe or vulnerable.  He must survey the world for threats and these are everywhere.

Which brings us back to why we should find him appealing.  Is this merely a reflection of our powers of empathy?  Or something else?  I am tempted to think Monk is a parable on the perils of individualism.  But you decide.  The next episode of Monk airs this Wednesday at 10:00 on the USA network.


For viewer rating:

For quote from Hyman:

For quote from Thorburn:

For more on the show:

See also:

3 thoughts on “Monk

  1. steve

    Monk stands in a great tradition of dysfunctional detectives. On TV alone, we had Cannon (grotesquely overweight by the standards of the time), Ironside (wheelchair-bound), and Longstreet (blind). In print, Nero Wolfe was a fat guy who never got up from his desk. Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine addict and eccentric to the point of weirdness (Monk’s prowess at forensic hermeneutics is pleasingly similar to Holmes’s). Batman is borderline psychotic.

    In some of these cases (e.g. Ironside or Cannon) the handicap is not central to the character’s abilities. In others, such as Monk and Longstreet, it plays a critical role. It reminds me of myths about magic, where the aspirant to power must suffer some injury to access the magical realm. Odin gave up his eye, and you often read of wizards with club feet or withered hands.

  2. Grant

    Steve, brilliant, you’re the man, this is very good, thanks for the post, (but I think my argument still stands, but then as a grasping intellectual, I would). Grant

  3. Jude

    Interesting, but the comment ” It reminds me of myths about magic, where the aspirant to power must suffer some injury to access the magical realm. ” annoyed me a bit. In Longstreet, his blindness does play a critical role, but he does not achieve “magic” powers or ways to overcome it. His intellegence, intuition and ordinary good hearing help him to be a sucessful investigator, not a magical sixth sense. I wonder how the character in the up coming series Blind Justice will be portrayed? Longstreet was a thoughtful, intellegent programme, well worth repeating, and the series endevoured to show much more than just a murder mystery being solved.

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