Adrian Monk is presented as a character who has always been neurodivergent, but the unsolved death of his wife—which is finally solved at the end of the series—causes Monk to become even more vulnerable to his OCD and phobias. The series begins when Monk has not left the house for three years. He has a nurse aide assisting him at all times, because he’s unable to care for himself alone. He also has a therapist whom he has sessions with regularly, and it’s during those sessions that Monk is shown at his most vulnerable.
Despite the heavy character background and the murders being solved, Monk is frequently played as a comedy—Shalhoub actually won the lead actor Emmy three times in the comedy category, against stars of sitcoms. While Monk’s behaviors are played for their humor value, there’s no sense of the audience laughing at Monk. They’re laughing because the situation Monk’s behaviors cause might be ridiculous, but they love him, as a character, through it all.
There are elements of his character that are more sympathetic to a modern audience, as well. Looking at the character almost fifteen years after the show ended, Shalhoub told a Parade magazine interviewer, “If people watch [Monk] in reruns during and after the pandemic, he’s not gonna look so neurotic anymore. He’s going [to] look more like the canary in the coal mine.” In a post-pandemic world, where the reality of germs cost so many people so much, the depiction of Monk and his phobias rings much closer to home.
What Wouldn’t Work About Monk Today
When Monk first aired, Monk was billed as “Obsessive Compulsive Detective” and “the defective detective,” terms that surely would not hit the same note with modern viewers. Audiences in 2024, especially members of Gen Z, are far more aware of mental health issues—and have more frank discussion about their own mental health—than the majority of viewers in the early 2000s. Considering someone with OCD “defective” just doesn’t fly.
Some psychologists took issue with the presentation of OCD on the show over a decade ago—after the show was off the air, but well before the pandemic shaped conversations about mental health and germs. Fletcher Wortmann in Psychology Today wrote about one particularly egregious episode, the Emmy-nominated “Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine,” in which Monk finally agrees to be medicated for his OCD and is immediately cured. “Sadly, use of the medication comes at a terrible price … Monk’s medication totally changes his personality — nuMonk is abrasive, egocentric, and oblivious to social cues.”
He also completely loses his crime fighting superpowers, because he no longer has his OCD to make him pay attention to the details. (This falls into the “Magical Disabled Person” trope, where a character’s seemingly superhuman abilities are due to their disability, and they must therefore suffer or lose what makes them special.) Obviously, medicine doesn’t work that way, and OCD doesn’t work that way either.