Afraid of Not Changing

USA Network

One night in January, on a walk to the neighborhood pub, I looked through my boyfriend’s neighbor’s massive, uncurtained front window at the television hanging over the mantle facing the street. Three men were lined up beside a hospital bed on screen. “He’s watching Monk,” I said. “Those are my friends, Captain Leland Stottlemeyer, Lieutenant Randy Disher, and former police detective Adrian Monk.” My boyfriend kept walking. “He might see you,” he said of the neighbor with the massive, uncurtained front window and a television hanging over the mantle facing the street. “He wants me to see him,” I said. I had been watching Monk nonstop for the past three weeks. What a coincidence this seemed; the obsessive-compulsive detective following me everywhere I went, an illuminated sign in the night.

Monk originally ran on the USA Network from 2002-2009, at one point becoming the most-watched hourlong series on basic cable. Though it’s been in near-constant reruns on TV for many years, it wasn’t available to stream online until very recently. Since hitting Amazon Prime in December 2017, though, it’s stayed on the first page of “most popular on Prime TV” results. The truth is, lots of people are watching Monk.

In a 2009 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, series co-creator Andy Breckman acknowledged he set out to make “a family-friendly show, an oasis, a safe harbor.” He succeeded, although on description, Monk doesn’t sound particularly family-friendly: Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) is a former San Francisco police detective whose obsessive-compulsive disorder kicked into overdrive after his wife was killed by a car bomb. He’s unfit to wear a badge, but works as a consultant for the police department, brought in to solve unsolvable crimes with his remarkable, “disordered” mind. Monk is predicated on mental illness and grief, but it is a comedy, a puzzle show. And like all the best procedural detective series (Murder, She Wrote; Law & Order: SVU; even Sherlock), Monk is imminently reliable. You tune in to see a character you know and love do exactly what they do best, over and over again. It’s perfect binge viewing for the chronically depressed. During my own most recent spell of depression, which arrived like clockwork alongside the darkest part of the year, I’ve burned through almost five seasons in a month. When I wake up with my skin crawling, dark thoughts crowding my head, I smother myself in episodes of a favorite, familiar procedural. My brain tells me to walk into the river; I sink into Monk, instead.

A 2015 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that binge-watching is associated with people who are depressed and/or lonely. The same study, surveying a smallish sample group of 316 18- to 29-year-olds, found that people who “lacked the ability to control themselves” were more likely to binge-watch. None of this is surprising. There are plenty of similar studies from the past 20 years, most of which seem to prove what I already know as a depressed and lonely person with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. In recent weeks, binging has become routine. I set up my snacks, seltzer, and remote controlsalways lined up smallest to largest and pointing away from me, one of my own particular compulsionsand settle in for a long evening of Monk. I may start in control, allotting myself two episodes before bed, but inevitably I let the autoplay roll on for one or three more, staying up hours past bedtime to finish out a season or reach an even-numbered episode. I’ve talked about the show so much, someone suggested I record a podcast, so I made a list of prospective names for the Monk podcast I promise I won’t ever actually make (but if you want to be a guest on “Thunkin’ on Monk,” let me know). What came first, the television or the depression? Do I binge-watch Monk because I’m depressed? Or am I depressed because I binge-watch Monk?Every two weeks, I enter my therapist’s office and answer one of the hardest questions of all time: “How are you?” It’s not the small talk, say-fine-and-move-on “how are you?” of office breakrooms and coffee shop transactions. It’s serious, clinical, asked to help guide a conversation that will hopefully elicit insight, if not relief. Still, I almost always say “fine,” whether out of reflex or self-preservation. We’ve talked about this several times, how to take in the question and really think it over before articulating a response. How to answer an asker who genuinely wants to know. How I tend to deflect attention and concern even here in the one space where I can take up as much as I want.

I assume therapist-client confidentiality goes both ways, and it would be impolite if not downright unethical for me to disclose details about the practitioner I pay to watch me weep twice per month. I will say that they are endlessly patient in the way good therapists tend to be, but that sometimes I wish for them to be harder on me, to tell me to snap out of it and confirm my fears that I’m tiresome, broken, and ruining my own life. But that’s not what therapists are for. Their job, as I understand it, is to help interrupt thought patterns, point out alternative narratives, identify obstacles and work around them. I’ve been seeing this person for almost five years, and want to believe I’ve made progress in that time, but my current seasonal slump feels so familiar. I wanted to be better by now.

Adrian Monk rarely demonstrates self-awareness about his own therapeutic experience. He sees Dr. Kroger (Stanley Kamel) three times a week, and doesn’t bother with “I’m fine.” Monk talks about his dead wife, his assistant, or his current case, and Dr. Kroger listens calmly, patiently, unflinchingly to new riffs on the same old theme. Kroger has a poker face even the great detective can’t breach, nodding thoughtfully through complaints that seem absurd to the average person. Like any good therapist, he reflects progress his client may not easily see: “You didn’t even fill the water glasses to even levels,” he tells Adrian on a promising day. Unlike others in Adrian’s life (Stottlemeyer; Randy; his first assistant Sharona; his replacement assistant Natalie; almost everybody he encounters day-to-day), Dr. Kroger rarely rolls his eyes.

In Monk, therapy scenes serve as islands of exposition, a place where Adrian can share personal history, phobias, and compulsions that become relevant to the current case. He speaks directly, or as directly as he is able to, of his ongoing grief. He frequently oversteps therapeutic boundaries; when the San Francisco sanitation workers go on strike, Monk ships his accumulated garbage to Kroger’s home address. When Monk learns Kroger has another patient, Harold Krenshaw, who is as troubled and attached to the therapist as himself, he engages in an ongoing war for the doctor’s attention. “I’m his favorite patient,” the two men argue back and forth. This is a therapeutic reality heightened to the extreme (Harold eventually takes a bullet for Dr. Kroger, a fact that infuriates Monk). I know it’s wrong, but I always hope my therapist likes me best. These feelings aren’t helpful to the process—I don’t need someone to like me, I need help—but they make sense.

Like the show’s depiction of therapy, its depiction of Adrian’s illness is manipulated to serve the plot. Early in the first season, it seems Monk developed his obsessive-compulsive behaviors after losing his wife. He was presumably a functional homicide detective until Trudy’s death, and now he’s barely able to walk down the street. But as the series continues, and the long-running mystery of Trudy’s murder develops alongside puzzles-of-the-week, we learn that Monk has always been troubled. He grew up with an anxious mother who instilled fear at an early age. When he was a child, his father waved goodbye from the cab of a semi-truck and drove away forever. He has a similarly-afflicted brother, Ambrose (John Turturro), whose crippling agoraphobia keeps him confined to the house where they grew up. (Scenes between Adrian and Ambrose are a delight; Shalhoub and Turturro playing off each other perfectly, two actors thriving under the constraints of buttoned-up characters in a basic cable world.) In the season four episode “Mr. Monk and Little Monk,” the series flashes back to 12-year-old Adrian Monk (Grant Rosenmeyer, best known as Ari from The Royal Tenenbaums) solving the mystery of who stole the bake sale proceeds. The episode serves as a kind of soft pilot for Little Monk, an online series that ran on the USA website in 2009. It also confirms that Monk has always been awkward and anxious in the world. He’s always favored tidiness, even numbers, and straight lines. He’s always had a photographic memory and a preternatural ability to solve mysteries. Trudy’s death wasn’t the inciting incident for Monk’s OCD, but a heightening trauma that drove him further into himself. Monk has always been this way, and he’s never going to change.Monk does overcome his compulsions and phobias from time to time, usually when convenient to forwarding the plot. Consider the season three episode, “Mr. Monk Gets Stuck in Traffic,” in which a murderer drives away in a dump truck with his assistant Natalie (Traylor Howard) handcuffed in the back. Monk—who rarely drives, panics when he sees a mis-buttoned shirt, and is afraid of milk—leans out the window of a moving car to shoot the bed-raising mechanism on the trunk and prevent the bad guy from dumping Natalie onto the road. Earlier in the episode, Natalie had called out her boss on his self-absorbed nature: “This is a very dangerous job, Mr. Monk,” she says. “What if I’m ever in real trouble? Are you gonna be there for me?” Conveniently, for the sake of the episode and Natalie’s life, he is. But in the very next episode, he calls 911 over a dirty diaper.

Nobody ever claimed Monk was an accurate portrayal of OCD, although, when the series was still running, Andy Breckman alluded to authenticity. “As someone who suffers from some of the same issues as Monk,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2008, “I can tell you this show is relatable to the masses. I’ve never met anyone who was 100 percent neurosis-free.” But there’s a big difference between neuroses and obsessive-compulsive disorder, between relatability and reality. If a mental health professional (which, I should note, I definitely am not) were to attempt to diagnose Adrian Monk, they might land more on the side of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), a distinct condition marked by a self-imposed systems of rules that the afflicted believe are reasonable and correct. People with OCD are aware that their unwanted thoughts and behaviors are unreasonable; Monk usually maintains that his regimented behavior is the “right” way to be. Usually. Breckman and co. were at best inconsistent and at worst offensive in their portrayal of Monk’s condition, whatever the actual label may be. In a more recent interview with the Huffington Post, Breckman admits, “The cluster of symptoms that Adrian Monk had did not exist in any human being. It was malleable, it was a fantasy.” The series forwent accuracy for the sake of the joke.

In one of the funniest scenes in the show, from season three opener “Mr. Monk Takes Manhattan,” Monk and Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) stand on a New York City street corner discussing the case at hand. Stottlemeyer tells Monk that if he solves the shooting of an ambassador, the mayor will let him speak to a man connected to his wife’s murder who is currently hospitalized under police surveillance. “Whaddya think?” Stottlemeyer asks. “I guess,” Monk starts, before a nearby construction worker fires up a jackhammer. He waits for the noise to stop. “I guess…” The jackhammer starts up again. Monk says “I guess” and is interrupted 13 times. The scene goes on for over a minute, quite a while in a 43-minute cable comedy show. This is my favorite kind of joke in the world: a thing that keeps going until it stops being funny, then comes back around to being funny again. (The most famous modern example may be the 2006 Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler sketch “Kristen Schaal is a Horse,” dissected in an episode of Radiolab). Repetition begets comedy, and repetitive actions are a hallmark of OCD. Some of the most comical, charming moments in Monk are these scenic asides in which Adrian indulges in his compulsions. What a different show it would be if Adrian’s mood disorder, phobias, and grief were portrayed realistically.

It would be boring, for one thing. In real life, in my experience at least, living with long-term mental health challenges is mundane. Chronic depression is tedious, sometimes to the point where it feels like if you don’t do something (scream out loud, punch a wall, turn your car into a guardrail), you will spontaneously combust. In popular portrayals of mental illness, we often see these moments of trauma, the action or decision to harm. It seems more challenging to portray the cyclical weariness and long stretches of ennui. My own depression carries with it an underlying thrum of, “I would prefer not to exist but cannot muster the energy to change.” And deciding whether or how to convey that, finding the right language to explain to a therapist or a friend, can be maddening on top of madness. Adrian Monk often says his darkest thoughts out loud, and at times, it’s appalling: This is a series in which “my wife was killed by a car bomb” is a recurring punchline. But it’s refreshing, too, to hear a character verbalize their endless inner turmoil. Living in a psychological prison has to be funny sometimes. If you couldn’t laugh, you’d lose your mind.

In the season three episode “Mr. Monk Takes his Medicine,” Monk enters Dr. Kroger’s office looking more depressed than we’ve seen him in the entire series up to that point. “This is not the life I wanted,” he says. “It’s unbearable. I envy everybody. Strangers, people on the street.” Kroger offers a reframing: that Monk has an extraordinary gift, and others admire and even envy him. But Monk has always viewed his gift as something of a curse. “I don’t want to be an extraordinary man,” Monk says. “I want to be the guy on the bus coming home at five o’clock to help his kids with their homework…I’m just so tired. I’m so tired of being me.” Tony Shalhoub’s performance as Monk is always physical, a showcase of precise gestures and facial shifts, and in this scene, he’s almost painful to watch, emanating discomfort with himself. It’s a feeling I have felt often, and recently, and am afraid to feel again. It’s the sense that I am broken beyond repair, and even though I want to fix myself, it feels impossible. I’ve been this way for so long, I don’t know if I’m capable of being any other way. Or as Monk puts it, “I’m afraid of change, and I’m afraid of not changing.”

The episode returns to comedy from there, as Monk tries a new form of medication that turns him from buttoned-up former police detective to Hawaiian-shirt-wearing party boy “The Monk.” The Monk eats messy sandwiches, drives a convertible, and carelessly misses clues. He’s not the Adrian we know and love, and his friends can’t stand him this way. In the end, Monk’s nurse Sharona (Bitty Schram) tosses the pills in the trash. “Welcome back,” she tells her boss, who seems relieved to be back to “normal” despite his angst in that opening scene.Characters are supposed to change over time. It’s one of the central rules of fiction. But the success of a long-running procedural series depends on the audience knowing what it gets, which is more of the same week to week. Adrian Monk can’t get better, or the show can’t go on. So, we see him maintain acute levels of grief over his wife’s death years past the expected timeline of recovery. We see him suffer meltdown after meltdown, long past the point where others might seek alternative treatment. We see him remain essentially the same over eight seasons because a series in which Mr. Monk Begins to Heal wouldn’t be the same series at all.

In real life, long-term mental illness sometimes doesn’t get better over time. New habits and behaviors are difficult to attain. Some bodies resist medication. Change is incremental and hard-won. This is a realization I’ve had over and over again as an adult: that I can take care of myself, and have a dynamic, fulfilling life, but that depression and anxiety will always be a part of me. I hope to manage them, to continue learning and understanding my sensitivity as more gift than curse. But I fear that part of me will always believe my own brain is a threat. Right now, I just want to accept it so I can get on with the work of living.

And so, I binge. Episode after episode of my favorite television detective, a man whose sandwiches must be exact squares, who would rather suffer dehydration than drink anything other than his beloved Sierra Springs bottled water. I will happily detail my favorite episodes (“Mr. Monk Goes to Mexico,” “Mr. Monk Goes Back to School,” “Mr. Monk Gets Jury Duty,” “Mr. Monk Makes a Friend”…). I believe Sharona is the better character, but I came around on Natalie in time. I love Randy’s stupidity, and Stottlemeyer’s fits of rage. I’ve spent as much time with these characters as with myself over the past month, and it’s probably time for me to take a break, but I’m afraid of change. And I’m afraid of not changing.

For now, I’m just trying to get through another February, finding genuine comfort in my old friend Adrian Monk, though he would likely find no comfort in a slob like me.