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'Monk'-y shines: Tony Shalhoub's series returns to form
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Traylor Howard and Tony Shalhoub find themselves in new digs in the season premiere of "Monk."


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Published: 7/17/2008 12:08 AM

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Cable USA has enjoyed success bringing a more lighthearted tone to conventional cop shows, most recently with the playful spy series "Burn Notice," but that approach hasn't always worked for Tony Shalhoub's "Monk."

True enough, the series competes in the comedy categories in the Emmys, where Shalhoub has won three times as best actor, but there's always been a darkness at the heart of the detective series. After all, Monk's obsessive-compulsive disorder, while played for laughs, was brought on by the (still unsolved) murder of his wife. The show didn't need to belabor the point on a weekly basis, but its best episodes confronted that reality, and it has faded in recent years by seeming to forget it.

"Monk" returns for its seventh season at 8 p.m. today on USA, and while that's accomplishment enough for most TV series, it finds a way to return to form by hinting at the darkness within without diving into it. It does so by confronting the recent real-life death of actor Stanley Kamel, who played Monk's therapist, Dr. Kroger.

Monk is haunted by memories of Dr. Kroger's piano playing, to the point where with his passing he can't stand a neighbor's practice sessions. Driven to work and then to investigate a seemingly commonplace death of an old man who fell down the stairs, he takes an interest in the man's abandoned home.

"You can't just buy a house on some crazy impulse," says Ted Levine's Capt. Stottlemeyer.

"I'll take it," Monk replies.

This leads into the standard whodunit, as after moving in Monk is befriended, then bamboozled by an insistent handyman played by Brad Garrett. Experienced viewers will spot right away that there's no accident to their accidental meeting. From there, it's pretty obvious where things are going.

Still, while pat, the episode has an intricate construction, and the blue notes from the passing of Dr. Kroger resonate as Monk gets a new therapist played by the ever-welcome Hector Elizondo. This isn't top-flight "Monk," but it's very solid and proficient "Monk." I'm even prepared to say I've come to accept Traylor Howard as his sidekick and no longer mourn the loss of Bitty Schram's Sharona. Of course, it helps that the show has one of the best theme songs in TV history in Randy Newman's "It's a Jungle Out There."

"Psych" follows with its more humble third season premiere at 9, and it too has a hidden darkness behind its humorous facade. James Roday stars as Shawn Spencer, a slacker with powers of observation so keen he typically helps out the local cops under the guise that he's psychic. Yet he had those powers drilled into him as a boy in an almost abusive manner by his police-officer father, Henry, played by Corbin Bernsen, whom he's always blamed for his splintered family and missing mother.

Lo and behold, who should turn up in the season premiere but good old Mom, played by none other than Cybill Shepherd, the former "Moonlighting" star. Complications ensue.

The whodunit angle is more routine, but with a neat little twist on who actually done it. (Betcha don't get it until near the end, Aware One.) First Dulé Hill's sidekick Gus is threatened with job termination over all the time he spends working with Shawn, then they wind up working for Gus' boss to find out what's behind his seemingly haunted house. The climax puts a self-referential spin on the "Scooby-Doo!" mysteries.

Likewise, there's a spin put on Shawn's preconceptions about his family as well - just enough of a hint of darkness and mystery to add a delicate shadow to the show's bright sense of humor. On "Psych" as in "Monk," dark comedy beats plain old comedy every time.