WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 (UPI) -- Declare it in the pages of the Strand! Lament in the streets of PBS Mystery! Nero Wolfe is dead! At least, the splendid cable TV series devoted to his exploits is.
We praised "Nero Wolfe" in these columns a year and a half ago when the series, starring Maury Chaykin as the eponymous 350-pound Montenegrin-Manhattan sleuth and Timothy Hutton as his wisecracking private eye amanuensis Archie Goodwin appeared. Arts and Entertainment network energetically promoted the show and ratings at first were robust, certainly healthy enough to warrant a second series. But then the ratings bombed to 1.9 million for a new show. And last week, A&E pulled the plug.
Yet at the same time "Nero Wolfe" crash-dived, another, remarkably similar detective series on the rival USA Network went from strength to strength. "Monk," starring Tony Shalhoub, opened to record strong cable ratings and has maintained most of them. Indeed, it proved so popular that the sister national ABC network ran several episodes in a key prime time slot at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays during the summer months and they performed robustly too. "Monk" is a sure thing to be renewed for its second season. And it deserves to be. But why did it succeed, and "Nero Wolfe" fail?
The question reveals the awful, unpredictable vagaries of the gods of the prime time ratings. For the two series are remarkably similar.
Both of them follow in the great Peter Falk "Colombo" tradition of witty, intelligent and almost non-violent TV detective shows. Both of them have colorful heroes who are as unphysical as it is possible to be. "Nero Wolfe" is a period piece, set in Manhattan of the late 1940s to early 1950s. "Monk" is set in contemporary San Francisco.
Nero Wolfe himself weights between one-sixth to one-seventh of a ton. He almost never leaves his haven, his home brownstone with the seven-step stoop in midtown Manhattan. He has a screaming, gesticulating, and inept official police foil, Inspector Cramer, splendidly played by Bill Smitrovich. And he has a smart, sexy and street-wise private eye to do his legwork: Archie Goodwin, played to perfection by Hutton.
Adrian Monk also only leaves his haven, a much more modest Bay Area apartment, with exceptional reluctance. He too has a screaming, gesticulating, ineffectual police foil in Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer, splendidly played by Ted Levine. And he has a smart, sexy, streetwise lady nurse to do his legwork -- Sharona Fleming, played to perfection by Bitty Schram.
"Commentary" jazz critic Terry Teachout, in a perceptive review in a recent National Review, noted that Wolfe, as played by the excellent Chaykin, has the haunted eyes of a man who has seen -- and knows -- too much. Qolfe appears to have been traumatized by his experiences as a teenage Montenegrin patriot soldier in World War I. Monk was traumatized by the murder of his beloved wife in a booby-trapped car. Now he is a "defective detective" who has phobias about literally everything.
Just as we know Nero Wolfe will melt down in hysterical mania if his five-course lunch is delivered without exactly the right sauce and wine, we also know that Adrian Monk will shake himself to a frenzy if anyone carelessly discards a used tissue on the floor in front of him.
Did then, "Monk" leech off "Wolfe"'s audience? It seems unlikely. "Monk" debuts on USA on Friday nights. "Nero Wolfe" had an even better slot at 8pm Sundays on A&E. Clearly, then, the differences between the two series played the crucial role in their contrasting fates,
Neither show is high budget, to put it mildly. But "Monk" has a realistic, if modest production budget for a quality cable TV-launched series. There are a few exteriors shot in the Bay Area for each episode, mostly at the beginning and end, to establish local atmosphere. The rest is conveniently studio shot.
"Wolfe," however, was shot on a shoestring. At least one-third of the production budget went into meticulously recreating the hero's study in his brownstone. Given the amount of action that takes place there, this was a sensible call and for aficionados of the series, a welcome one. But absolutely nothing was shot on location in New York City, and there was absolutely no effort made, outside the interiors and pitch perfect costuming, to catch the physical actuality of "Golden Age" Manhattan.
Also, while both shows have minimal violence, "Monk" does at least frame its detection with two action sequences. The murder is shown, or led up to, in the introductory sequence. And usually Monk is forced to take some improbably awkward action adventure himself, despite all his phobias at the dramatic climax. In one already classic scene, he had to climb on to a roof to bring a murderous fake Santa Claus to justice. On another, he had to climb up a jammed Ferris wheel at a fun fair to rescue his nurse.
"Nero Wolfe," true to the pages of the classic detective novels and stories by Rex Stout on which it was meticulously based, had no such action scenes. And the paucity of its budget -- the sound stage it was shot on was in a freezing Canadian warehouse -- ruled out any wonderfully atmospheric Manhattan backdrops to go with it.
The tight "Wolfe" budget also required the use of the same small repertory group of actors to play different roles every week and this, after a few weeks, was a novelty that probably rapidly wore off the viewing audience. It was all the more unfortunate as the formulaic repetition of Stout's familiar whodunit plot structures, so entertaining at first came to be a blur.
Indeed, it was the show's very fidelity to Stout's formulas and story details that spelled its doom with only a round one third of all Stout's 73 Wolfe novels and stories made and broadcast. Ironically, "Monk," written by supposedly untalented TV industry scriptwriters, generated far superior mysteries. And the episodes have far more change of pace and relief to them.
"Monk" will now rule unchallenged as the heir to "Columbo" on prime-time cable. But spare a sense of loss for "Nero Wolfe." It recreated with a wonderful lightness of touch and energetic joie de vivre a rich, elegant and from today's troubled perspective astonishingly carefree time. I would have expected that following the horrors of Sept. 11 a year ago, "Wolfe" would have soared in popularity as a nostalgic refuge from the nightmares of the present, but such was apparently not the case.
More's the pity. The show's unconventional wit and class shone like an improbable beacon in the vast cultural desert and bizarre pseudo-documentary jungle of prime-time cable. Some of us will shed a tear at its passing. But not, obviously, enough.