Thursday, July 17, 2008

Monk and Psych: Reinventing the Detective Genre

There’s a reason the detective genre endures generation after generation. And that’s because there are only two kinds of people in the world—those who love mysteries, and those who hate mysteries. Those who love mysteries love the process of peering around the corner to see what lies beyond. They don’t need a vested interest in the back story of the mystery—they’re in it for the puzzle, and nothing more. They play Sudoko and obsess over the New York Times crossword puzzle. Those who hate mysteries are usually detectives. Mysteries drive them nuts—they are driven to know the who, how, where and why of a situation. Mysteries eat at their very core, upset their equilibrium, offering them no rest until they have answers. They’re generally a bit more obsessive than the average mystery lover, and they usually don’t mesh well with textbook methods.

Cops and private eyes, at least the hard-boiled sort, are not really detectives so much as they are just regular joes doing their job. Real detectives are seriously flawed in one way or another, whether it’s Sherlock Holmes dealing with his cocaine habit or even Bruce Wayne combating his obsession to dress up as a bat. We relate to these characters on a couple of levels—they give us hope that we can rise above our daily drudge, and we can be appreciated as the geniuses we always knew we were. The more flawed the detective, and the more ingenious he is in spite of (or in some cases, because of) his weaknesses, the more we empathize with him.

When it comes to flaws and weaknesses, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more sympathetic character than Adrian Monk. For six seasons, Tony Shahloub’s portrayal of the obsessive-compulsive detective has enthralled viewers, with equal parts Chaplinesque tragicomedy, tantalizing mysteries and an undying belief in the underdog. Monk may seem completely off-track through most of any given episode, but in the end, he’s always triumphant, and always humble.

Monk begins its seventh season Friday night, 18 July at 98 P EST on the cable USA network. “Mr. Monk Buys a House” finds the detective coping, not too successfully, with the death of his therapist, Dr. Kroger (Stanley Kamel, who died unexpectedly earlier this year). Hector Alizondo (lately of the mercifully departed Cane) debuts as Monk’s new therapist, and does an admirable job, infusing a new personality into the role. Monk, while investigating a possible murder (which was of course originally ruled an accidental death) impulsively decides to buy the house of the deceased. Brad Garret (Everybody Loves Raymond) delivers a delightful performance as a handyman who may be even more deceptive than he seems. There’s a reason why Monk has racked up all those Emmys and Golden Globes, and if this episode is any indication, expect more pling this year.

Flaws come in all kinds of flavors, and one of the tastiest involves the need to misdirect, to sell snake oil to the rubes, as it were. Psych (season premiere debuting right after the Monk premiere, 18 July, 1 P EST) stops barely short of that, but it does capitalize on the art of the scam. Now beginning its third season, Psych continues the adventures of Shawn Spencer, who solves crimes with powers of observation so acute the precinct detectives think he's psychic – at least that’s what he lets them believe. The thing that makes Psych work is it never takes itself seriously. The protagonists, Shawn (James Roday) and Gus (Dule Hill), work as seamlessly as Robert Culp and Bill Cosby did in I Spy—updated, of course, and all played with a wink and a nod.

Things are complicated in the season opener, when Shawn’s mom (Cybill Shephard), herself a criminal psychic, re-enters his life , further complicating his his relationship with his father (Corbin Bernsen). Making things even more convoluted is the fact that Gus’s day job employer considers his work with Psych a conflict of interest. It’s a complex day, to be sure, not unlike all the days we face, but with an added layer of absurdity.

The murder mystery is not dead. Neither is the detective genre, They have merely found a new audience. Let me rephrase that. The audience was always there, It just took cable, or more specifically, USA, to alert us to that fact. The Monk and Psych season premieres redefine maxims like “TV Worth Watching”, because they are.

Not only are Monk and Psych worth watching,

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