Imagine you are finally able to leave your home, after far too long and a scary time indoors. You muster up the courage to leave your apartment. An elevator arrives, the door opens, and you are just about to get in when somebody coughs.
Oh, my God, how dare they?
This is not a scene from my life — not yet anyway — but from the television series “Monk.” It was carried on USA cable from 2002 to 2009, and I am so glad to have just re-discovered it. It is the single most relaxing way I have found to pass the time since our lockdown started. And it’s all available for the price of membership in Amazon Prime.
Anthony Shalhoub plays Adrian Monk, a former detective in San Francisco who suffered a three-year nervous breakdown after his wife was the victim of a car-bombing. At the series’ opening, he has become a consultant, trying to regain his shield by solving all the toughest murder cases for local police. And solve them he does — despite a debilitating case of obsessive compulsive disorder, with extreme germophobia, a rigid need for organization and a laundry list of phobias.
Shalhoub has had many roles since obtaining his master’s from Yale Drama in 1980 — from a sleazy alien pawnbroker in “Men in Black” to the father of Amazon TV’s “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” But the breakout role that made him a star was this one as Adrian Monk.
It arguably did even more for those of us who felt we were struggling alone with phobias and OCD.
The thing about Monk is that his OCD makes him observant enough to notice tiny clues overlooked by everyone else. As he says, “It’s a blessing….and a curse.”
Of course, Monk needs constant support from an assistant, first Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram) and then Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard). Any time he opens a door, touches a button or — heaven help us — shakes someone’s hand, he must be handed a wipe.
When a psychic asks everyone to hold hands “to complete the ring,” he offers only his jacketed elbows. I have begun imitating the way he turns off faucets with a paper towel, and it was enlightening to watch him try to unpack his groceries without actually touching them — he upends the bag they are in and then sorts with a spatula.
Back in the Before Times (before coronavirus) this all marked Monk as quite the eccentric, but watching him from lockdown has been strangely relaxing. I’d begun yelling “Where is your mask?” or “Keep your distance!” at other reruns, at characters in crowded bar and beach scenes. I didn’t realize how tense I was getting till I found “Monk” and let out a huge sigh.
Now, with Monk on the case, every episode feels like a small vacation.
One of my favorites was “Mr. Monk Goes to Mexico.” He takes 15 suitcases, full of bottled water, sanitizing wipes, and toilet paper…all stolen in his first 10 minutes south of the border. Better him than me!
Another high point for me was the episode where Monk must get on a plane. Before he even boards, he demands to know, “When was the last time this plane was disinfected?Everyone else in the episode thinks that he’s crazy. But we don’t — not anymore.
Watching the episodes in order on Amazon Prime, it wasn’t until the second season that I encountered another reason why I love this series so: Randy Newman’s theme song, titled “It’s a Jungle Out There.” Rather than skipping the opens, I laugh aloud every time Newman sings:
“People think I’m crazy ’cause I worry all the time,
If you paid attention, you’d be worried too;
You better pay attention
Or this world we love so much
might just kill you.
I could be wrong now – but I don’t think so
‘Cause there’s a jungle out there!”
Recently Shalhoub and some colleagues produced an update, available on YouTube, that shows him washing his hands to the song “99 Bottles of Beer On The Wall” and “sanitizing” his mail in the microwave. (Please don’t try that at home.) He then drops character to tell us that he and his wife have both survived COVID-19. Before going out on his terrace at 7 pm to clap for essential workers, he tells us “We truly are all Monk now.”
We couldn’t be in better — or cleaner — hands.