what i'm watching: mr. monk and the loyal viewer

It's a rare television show that gets me so engrossed in the characters that I actually begin to care about them. It takes great writing, great acting, and probably more than anything, great characters.

I've just finished the entire series of "Monk," which I've been watching end-to-end on Netflix. The last network TV show I remember liking in the same can't-put-it-down way was "Veronica Mars," which I had never heard of until a friend lent me the series on DVD. (Thank you!!) I'd watch one episode after the next until I would finally force myself to go to sleep.

I read about "Monk" when it first aired; critics loved it and lobbied for it to stay on the air, but it was never broadcast in our area. A few years ago I started catching episodes on late-night cable, and really liked it. Netflix (and Roku) gave me the chance to watch the entire series.

"Monk" follows a well-worn path: a brilliant but damaged detective (they always have a "thing") sees what no one else does, and solves cases that no one else can. What makes this show stand out is the amazing acting of Tony Shalhoub, and the mix of humour and pathos that surrounds the main character, Adrian Monk.

Turns out it's a good thing I saw random episodes before watching it on Netflix. When I went back to the beginning, I discovered - as is so often the case - that the first season was not quite there yet. The show hits its stride towards the end of Season 1, and really takes off in Season 3. (For you Monk fans out there, I think the show really gelled with the introduction of Traylor Howard, who played Natalie.)

Excellent TV shows are also distinguished by if and how characters grow and change. In Monk, our hero has been devastated by the murder of his wife, his one and only true love. As years pass, you would expect to see some change in that condition. At the same time, detective Adrian Monk struggled with phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder long before the traumatic event, so in order to be believable, change can't come too quickly or look too conventional.

This is really where the show excelled. In the seventh (penultimate) season, there are ever-so-subtle signs that Adrian Monk is making progress. Nothing hits you over the head; the show trusts the viewer to understand. By the eighth and final season, it's clear that Mr. Monk is actually changing, yet the changes are always in character, and still small enough to be believable.

The two-part series finale, which I just finished, was brilliant - suspenseful, emotional, both joyful and sad.

You know when you love a book so much that you're sorry when you read the final page? I think the highest compliment I can pay this show is to say I'll miss it.

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