Remember when Friday night TV was a highlight of the week? Well, Friday night TV is back in a 2008 reincarnation on USA Network.
"Monk,"(8pm) in its seventh season, is about a brilliant, obsessive-compulsive, omni-phobic, neatfreak San Francisco detective. He's actually on leave from the force because of his stressed-out condition after his beloved wife, Trudy, was killed by a car bomb. (This is the only dark, but also tender, recurring note of the show.) Monk (Emmy-award-winning Tony Shaloub) cracks every case, so he is often hired as a consultant by his former boss, Captain Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine). Monk's inability to function requires him to have a personal assistant, Natalie (Traylor Howard), help him do ordinary tasks and fit into society. We often see him at his shrink's office (Stanley Kamel), where we learn more about how his mind works.
This "fish out of water" premise offers endless scenarios: Monk lost in New York City, Monk undercover in prison, Monk at his college reunion. With each new episode, a little more information about his character is meted out, which makes us feel like we're in on the joke. We're already laughing when we see an elevator in the scene because we know he's afraid of elevators. "Monk" avoids being formulaic: sometimes Monk knows who did it and just has to prove how. Sometimes it's not till the end that he figures it all out. Excellent writing keeps Detective Adrian Monk unpredictable. He does plenty of things we expect: he twitches, opens doorknobs with a handkerchief, keeps foods on his plate from touching each other, etc. But then there are moments of growth and heroism when he overcomes himself. You can watch your favorite "Monk" scenes and episodes over and over again—it's that good.
My favorite "Monk" scene: In a Peter Sellers-like set-up, Monk is trying to talk to the Captain over a jackhammer. Because Monk is obsessive-compulsive, he must start the same sentence again each time the jack hammer resumes. My favorite "Monk" episode: Monk is hired for some PI work by a leper. Monk realizes that "the worst has happened to him and he survived." There are many poignant moments that reveal Monk as a human being with more depth than those around him: Monk reads his love letters to Trudy out loud at a Playboy mansion-style setting. The women begin crying and rejecting their oafish dates.
"Monk" has filled the void left by "Murder She Wrote," but as normal as Jessica was, that's how abnormal Monk is. "Monk" is more like "Columbo," where the focus is every bit as much on the crime-solver as the criminal.
"Psych" (9pm), in its third season, is edgier, younger fare, but nothing that Mom or Grandpa won't also enjoy. Childhood friends, Shawn (James Roday) and Gus (Dule Hill) run a fake psychic business in Santa Barbara. Shawn's Dad (Corbin Bernsen) is an ex-cop who taught Shawn to hone his powers of observation. Shawn made the Santa Barbara police believe he's psychic, and they hire him and Gus to solve crimes. The police include a bumbling-but-pompous Det. Lassiter (the comedic genius, Timothy Omundson), and the so-out-of-Shawn's-league-but-not-a-snob Det. O'Hara (Maggie Lawson). The show employs frequent flashbacks to the young Shawn, Dad and Gus, and they haven't changed much. Shawn is the cocky mastermind who usually leaves Gus holding the bag. The relationship between Shawn and his Dad is constant competition—and although they disapprove of each other's investigation styles, and lives in general, there's much affection and they're true buddies.
Shawn and Gus find love interests in the midst of their snooping, but it never gets very serious. And there is either a gentleman or a woman in the writing room, because Shawn's dating tips (to Gus who actually has more romance in his life), are very chivalrous: "You look at a woman's eyes, that's how you attract her. It's all about the eyes." "First you talk to a woman like she's a person, then a princess, then a Greek goddess, then a person again."
Halfway through the show is a two-minute cartoon feature: "The Big Adventures of Little Shawn and Gus" (www.usanetwork.com). Good clean fun. "Psych" is juvenile and sweet, with an ample dose of physical comedy, but it's the rapid-fire dialogue, littered with pop culture references, that makes it stand out, almost like a male "Gilmore Girls."
If TV had movie ratings, "Monk" and "Psych" would be PG. There is some swearing, mostly by police.
Five hundred channels and nothing's on? You can't say that about Friday night.