WASHINGTON, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- Recession getting you down? Terrorism? War? Rumors of war? The USA Cable Network can't cure any of that, but at least it can give you a blessed hour of relief from it every Friday night, with repeats throughout the next week. Take a TV screen trip to San Francisco every weekend and solve a murder with Adrian Monk.
"Monk" is the welcome and brightly, lightly original crime detection series starring the great Tony Shalhoub as its eponymous hero. Adrian Monk was the star detective of the San Francisco Police Department until a criminal bomb in his car blew up his beloved wife.
Emotionally and psychologically shattered by the trauma, he was a virtual invalid for years. Now he is trying to reestablish himself as a private eye. His mind and eye are as brilliant as ever. There is only one problem: Adrian is a nut.
To be precise, he suffers from acute -- and cute -- anxiety syndromes. When he walks by an iron picket fence, he has to touch the top of every spike. When he leaves an umbrella facing the wrong way on his hall wall rack, he must come back into the house to set it right. Getting mud on his shoes causes him to silently implode in hysterical terror. He is even terrified of milk.
As we noted in this column about Leo McKern's "Rumpole of the Bailey," any good character actor could make a lot of Monk, but Tony Shalhoub incarnates him.
Over the past decade, Shalhoub has been everywhere. He played a powerful, major role in Edward Zwick's prescient movie "The Siege," with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, about terrorist attacks in New York City. He was one of the greatest pleasures in the whacky network sitcom "Wings." And he was a welcome, brief respite of delight as a weirdo who looked like a space alien but wasn't in the otherwise highly disappointing but profitable "Men in Black II." The Coen brothers love him and use him in their movies all the time.
Like such character actors before him as Robert Loggia, Tom Sizemore or the late, great Telly Savalas, Shalhoub has always been a lot bigger than the parts he got. And just as "Kojak" was the breakout role that made Savalas a world star, "Monk" looks like doing it for him.
The contrast between the two shows, separated by 30 years, is striking and tells a lot about how America has evolved as well as U.S. network TV.
"Kojak", which ran on CBS from 1973 to 1978, was a "John Wayne" type show. There was no strong major female character. The hero was a stunning dresser. He was fearless, big, tough, macho and invincible. It was set in the brawling streets of New York. The hero reassuringly shot people every week. It was predictable, formulaic, trance-inducing.
It only came to life when Savalas was on screen, transmuting the bored work of untalented hacks into electricity by the power of his own personality.
"Monk" is a small, custom-made jewel of a show. It appears on a cable network, not one of the old Big Three. Its hero is small, fragile, sensitive and vulnerable. He would collapse into a catatonic coma if he ever had to fire a gun at anyone. He keeps his socks in sealed plastic bags.
Monk does not even drive. He cannot go anywhere without his nurse Sharona, played by the very good Bitty Schram. She is his Dr. Watson or Capt. Hastings, but more like Archie Goodwin in "Nero Wolfe", the intelligent, astringent, wisecracking, practical sidekick who also provides the invaluable muscle and spunk the cerebral hero needs to do his legwork.
"Kojak" was a show for a still-macho, essentially confident America, just coming out of the Vietnam War. The great silent majority remained convinced that the United States would always be invincible and only lost because wimps lost their nerve.
The anti-war protestors were also convinced America was all-powerful and could retreat from or abdicate that power without nightmarish things happening to it.
Both sides, from the perspective of the mega-terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, appear from our new 21st century perspective to have been living in a dream world.
"Monk" responds to those anxieties.
The initial appeal of the character was clearly "Colombo Lite." Like the classic, long-lived ABC series starring Peter Falk, much of the pleasure in watching "Monk" is in seeing wealthy, athletic, handsome, confident, arrogant, obnoxious snobs brought to their doom every week and -- even better -- publicly terrified and humiliated by inches by an unprepossessing, apparently insecure little man a lot more like us.
It is easy to see why Shalhoub clearly loves to play its hero so much. What other show has there ever been that could generate genuine suspense by raising the possibility that the hero would blow a crucially important interview because he might not be able to resist obsessively picking up a paper tissue the police board chairman had dropped to the floor?
But since 9/11, "Monk" carries a lot more psychic freight. Everyone is anxious now. Everyone now realizes the world is not just a big place but also an uncontrollable and unpredictable one too. We all know what it is like to twitch like Adrian Monk, and to obsess about putting on exactly the right socks in the morning because we have more power over that than we do about how the Dow Jones Index will behave today.
It is no wonder that "Monk" has proven a fantastic popular success for USA Network or that it has put Shalhoub, deservedly, on the map at last.
"Monk" therefore is a cozy show for a kinder, gentler and far, far more fragile America. It is not for an America that wants to storm around the world and kick everyone's butt. It is for a traumatized America that needs to sit back and walk slowly in the park with its hand gently held by a nurse after things went disastrously wrong.
It is remarkable, and curious, that Monk's former police boss, Capt. Stottlemeyer is played -- both commandingly and sympathetically -- by Ted Levine who was memorably "Buffalo Bill", the most appalling and terrifying serial killer of all time, hunting down Jodie Foster in his own catacombs in "The Silence of the Lambs."
Levine's transformation here into a champion of law and order, fair play and decency is obviously a welcome break for a talented actor who had become disastrously typecast by a few unforgettable, searing minutes of celluloid fame. But it also contributes crucially at a subliminal level to the air of cozy reassurance that adds to the show's draw.
"Monk" has its limitations. It is no highly original masterpiece like "The Sopranos." Despite a relatively generous production budget, it lacks the energy, drive and wit of A&E's wonderful "Nero Wolfe" series. It certainly does not carry the horror or emotional power of the BBC import "The Murder Rooms" starring Sir Ian Richardson, currently pulling them in on PBS.
But like "Colombo" and "Nero Wolfe", "Monk" delivers the reassuring pleasures of a well-crafted and witty, essentially non-violent detective show each week with a fascinating, genuinely original and wonderfully comic central character played to perfection by a wily old pro.
"Colombo" ran forever. "Nero Wolfe" looks like it might too. "Monk" deserves to as well. Tune in, enjoy, and learn to function with your own anxieties just like Adrian Monk does. It's cheaper than therapy.