Today is Thursday. That’s Monk Day for me.
As you know (always a dangerous phrase in a story, but this is real life, where you can get away with lots of nonsense), I am currently a free-lance translator. I work from home, setting my own hours – something less ideal than it sounds. I either work quite long hours, or sit around worrying about not working.
But that’s beside the point. The point is that I work in a manner pleasing to myself – usually in sweat clothes on my sofa (sometimes, for exercise, in an easy chair), with the TV on. I have a current TV routine. The H & I Network runs mystery marathons in nine-hour blocks, five days a week. Thursday is Monk Day. Nonstop Tony Shalhoub as an obsessive-compulsive police consultant, whose frailty enables him to see things others miss, even as he barely functions as an adult.
This is a character I identify with.
But that’s not exactly my point either.
I’ve had multiple opportunities to view the two-part pilot episode, and the plotting impresses me a lot. I think it’s a very good example of exemplary character plotting.
We have our “hero,” Adrian Monk, who is afraid, essentially, of everything. He has a long list of phobias, but chief among them is his fear of dirt and germs. He keeps his personal space immaculate and meticulously organized, and can’t even shake hands without wiping down immediately with a towelette. He has a nurse/personal assistant who serves as his mediator with the world. Her name is Sharona (she is replaced in the third season, but that doesn’t matter here), and she’s more or less his opposite – she’s an earthy New Jersey girl with a blousy style and considerable street smarts. They annoy each other immensely, but each also provides the other with things they need. In spite of themselves, they care for one another – non-romantically.
So in the pilot episodes, the writers set up a perfectly splendid dilemma for Monk. Sharona is kidnapped by a murderer, who drags her off as a hostage – into the sewers of San Francisco.
This constitutes an existential crisis for Monk. His whole life (and his survival, in his own mind) depends on keeping clean. But now he has to climb down into a sewer, where he must encounter sewage, or possibly lose Sharona.
This is splendid character plotting. Monk’s choice is not only agonizing (in a comic way), but it’s germane to the character established in the story. He is tested at his weakest point. He’s forced to leave his comfort zone, to do what he believes he can’t do. His choice to follow into the sewer (you knew he’d do that, didn’t you?) is in actuality an act of faith.
Dramatically, it’s far superior to the more famous “Sophie’s Choice.” Sophie’s choice achieved drama purely through its extremity, but revealed nothing about her character and taught her (and the reader) nothing but despair. The author who counsels despair is like the debater who ends the argument with a punch in the face. It’s effective, but nothing is learned.
Monk is good for you. Good for me, anyway.