Double Duty for Monk

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The story of adrian monk — the protagonist of the hit detective show on the usa cable network — is not unlike the story of Monk the series. Monk, played by Tony Shalhoub, is a brilliant detective with a few quirks: after his wife was murdered, he developed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Now he's germ phobic and afraid of heights — and milk. He can ID a criminal with little more than a sniff of the curtains at a murder scene, but put him near a couch with a crooked pillow, and he can't function until he straightens it. Because of his condition, he was fired from the San Francisco police force. Yet when a tough case comes up, his former colleagues keep calling him back to save their heinies.

Monk the series was also let go from the big leagues. It was developed for ABC, which passed on this charming but quirky comedy-drama. But now that Monk is a hit on cable — and ABC is starved for hits of its own — it seems ABC's opinion of the series has improved. The network exercised a clause that gave it the right to rerun the show, and it's now airing Monk repeats Tuesdays at 9 p.m. E.T.

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It's common for network shows to cut rerun deals on cable (the Law & Order family, 24). But Monk's reverse trip shows how business has changed for ABC and TV as a whole. Monk was in development at ABC back in the heyday of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which now seems as quaint a turn-of-the-century phenomenon as gains on one's 401(k). Since then, the network has tumbled from first place to fourth in the ratings, and it has started looking outside for help. Earlier this month, it made a production deal with HBO (owned by Time's parent company, AOL Time Warner). The Monk "experiment," says ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne, provides ABC with only slightly used programming on the cheap and benefits Disney, ABC's parent, which produces Monk. "Potentially," she says, "this is a great way of doing business." Monk's ABC debut drew more than 7 million viewers — pretty good for a summer rerun and huge by cable standards.

The Monk move is also a sign of how the status lines between cable and broadcast TV have faded. Recently, most of TV's acclaimed, successful new dramas have debuted on cable (The Shield, Six Feet Under), while the networks' new success stories — The Bachelor, American Idol, Dog Eat Dog — are reality shows that might once have gone to cable. Says usa president Doug Herzog: "[Cable is] not the sorry sister or the B team. We can create first-rate programming."

Indeed, Monk (which airs on usa Fridays at 10 p.m. E.T.) is the kind of distinctive, fresh series that the big networks could make but rarely do. It's a lighthearted whodunit — think of '70s shows like The Rockford Files — but with added sophistication and poignance, in part because of Shalhoub's dryly funny performance. But Shalhoub almost didn't take the part. "I liked [the script]," he says, "but I didn't see myself doing it." His manager told him to take a second look. "She was trying to tell me in a covert way that it was well suited to me." She was right. There's a touch of sweet-hearted madness in many of his characters, from the perfectionist chef in Big Night to Wings' goofily hapless cabbie Antonio. Where another actor would have made Monk Keerrraazy with a capital K, Shalhoub portrays him with cool-jazz reserve as a Woody Allenish nerd, which makes the character both funnier and more affecting.

Granted, even most ocd sufferers do not have Monk's over-the-top problems. "We're taking dramatic license," says Shalhoub, who met several times with a psychologist while researching his part. "We're loading this character with just about everything a person like him can have." In a strange way, Monk's exaggerated condition makes his crime-solving genius more plausible. (More so than Monk's secondary characters, who too often have a cardboard, murder-mystery-dinner-theater feel.) It makes us see that Adrian Monk's talent — and that of the many fictional sleuths who preceded him — is just a healthier manifestation of his malady: he needs to impose order on a world that inexorably tends toward entropy. Is that crazy? Not as crazy as having let this show get away to another network.