July 01, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
We gave it a B+

Television loves a fussy man. Precise in his annoyances (Frasier Crane), articulate in his kvetches (Felix Unger), and hygienic in his toilette (Jerry Seinfeld), the peeved fellow has a noble sitcom history of making a slobbier, less kempt, and more oblivious gent look more acceptably manly over the course of a long, guy-to-guy relationship. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Neurotic fastidiousness has traditionally been a source of coded, sexualized hilarity suitable even for primetime audiences who have taken an oath of innuendo-free living.

Then there’s Monk, the disarming detective show that breaks the fuss barrier by featuring a hero whose discomforts are an expression of actual psychological illness. This is new in the realm of TV comedy, a character with real miseries who nevertheless gets by — indeed, prevails — solving murder cases that might confound a less phobic peer. Repressed sexual tee-hee has nothing to do with what makes Adrian Monk tic, certainly not as Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub plays him so gracefully. This afflicted modern Job is a former San Francisco cop who came undone following the murder of his wife, and whose phobias are in a whole other diagnostic league from Seinfeld-strength twitches about whose toothbrush has been where. With his pained grimace, his soft voice, and his flourishing obsessive-compulsive disorder, Shalhoub’s Monk is a modern breed of fretter for a psychopharmacological era. Monk is the moment’s sitcom expression. And I’ll venture the nonprofessional assessment that this cheery comedy mainstreaming of psychological disorder beats the more established, sniggering approach to fussy men any day.

Of course, Monk isn’t technically a sitcom, but rather a gumshoe procedural. Each week, the show opens with a murder and concludes with a mystery solved, none of which is of much interest except to the seasoned guest stars, of Murder, She Wrote provenance, who benefit from the freelance work. No, what really matters to show creator Andy Breckman and his team are the amusing ways in which their PI can be made to suffer in situations of anxiety — work assignments that bring him face-to-face with his fear of germs, heights, crowds, the wind, milk, you name it — and the inventive, don’t-blink-an-eye strategies his regular colleagues devise to ease his pain and encourage his forensic creativity.

Certainly, judging from the first episode of the fourth season, his cohorts know the drill. ”Mr. Monk and the Other Detective” opens with an extended joke involving a pile of dog droppings that distracts our man at a crime scene, and continues with the introduction of Jason Alexander as a competing freelance gumshoe who, to continue in the Seinfeldian analytic mode, might well have arrived from Bizarro World: Alexander’s Marty Eels is as sloppy, schlumpy, and utter a nebbish as Monk is finicky and hypersanitary. The casting is a highly satisfying reformatting of Alexander, who spent the past year woefully misused as sports-writer Tony Kleinman on CBS’ Listen Up. And where Monk is instantly supplied with hand wipes by his efficient personal assistant, Natalie (Traylor Howard, a pleasing addition brought in last season to fill the space previously occupied by fizzy Bitty Schram), even though he’s nowhere near the poop perimeter, Eels happily sticks his nose right in the matter to sniff for clues. (Ted Levine, as precinct captain Leland Stottlemeyer, and Jason Gray-Stanford, as Lieut. Randall Disher, stand by their former colleague, but grudgingly concede the new guy’s talent with turds.)

That’s the show, really: Monk’s investigation of a murder (something involving a jewelry-store manager, a kidnapped dog, and a couple of lowlife robbers) is upstaged, right and left, by the germ-spreading Eels, whose own unorthodox sleuthing techniques appear to put him in the lead. And for added guest-star value, Dana Ivey makes an appearance as Mama Eels. But it’s all the ways the world is too much for Adrian Monk — and, in inverse proportion, not enough for Marty Eels — that makes the episode so shapely.

In four seasons, Shalhoub’s repertoire of feints and recoils has expanded — the way he lifts palm to brow to shield his eyes from a frightening world, the way he waggles his fingers when deep in either professional thought or personal distress. In four seasons, too, Stottlemeyer and Disher have become a little waggly themselves, a little faded and underdefined. Mr. Eels, then, is all the more welcome a visiting neurotic in Mr. Monk’s world, reminding us of how exotic a sitcom visitor Mr. Monk is in ours.

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