A tale of two series
Wounded lead characters and their approaches to life couldn't be more different in award-winning shows
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Looking for a break from wondering what the world will be like when the lockdown ends? Two multiple-award-winning TV series from the dawn of this millennium might give you the diversion you need.
Monk (2002-2009) stars Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk. House (2004-2012) stars Hugh Laurie as Gregory House, M.D. The shows overlapped by six years and also overlapped in awards. Monk won eight Emmys (three for Shalhoub’s acting), House won five. Shalhoub and Laurie dominated the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards for best acting from 2004 to 2009. Both shows can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Why all the attention? The awards are a clue, but the deeper reason is the two strong, complicated main characters. Both Monk and House are idiosyncratic, wounded healers. Both have a gift: One solves unsolvable murder cases, the other solves the most mysterious medical ones. Similar but very different.
What about Adrian Monk draws viewers to him? A former San Francisco Police detective, Monk loses his badge when his wife dies in a car bombing and he breaks down. This is the one case Monk cannot solve—until the end of the series.
Monk is afraid of 312 things—from milk, harmonicas, heights, and tight spaces to ladybugs, messes, nudity, and foods touching on his plate. Germs may be among the most frightening. Every time Monk touches anything he needs a wipe.
Still, his idea of propriety is skewed. He only provides one beer each for the guests at his beloved friend Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer’s bachelor party. If that’s not enough to dampen the fun, his best man’s speech focuses on the captain’s divorce from his first wife and his last girlfriend’s current address: She’s in jail for murder. At that the guests think it’s time to go.
What keeps us watching? Shalhoub, for one, whose acting masterfully balances obsessive compulsive disorder with the pain of losing a wife and, with it, a place in the world. And Monk himself can be endearing.
Yes, he is a cheapskate, constantly forgetting to pay his assistant. He is always cleaning. He cuts his food into squares. He focuses on himself. But, when Monk is deathly ill, we can’t help but smile, watching him separate his pills into red, yellow, and blue before he can take them. And he is outraged by murder: His goal is to stop people who do it from doing it again. Then, when everyone least expects it, he does something, yes, endearing.
So, what draws us to House? He is the scary brilliant head of the diagnostics department, created especially for him, at a private hospital in a town that seems a lot like Princeton, N.J. He is alone. A misdiagnosis left him with never-ending, excruciating pain that gives him reason for a Vicodin addiction and a very short temper.
But House loves solving puzzles, particularly the puzzle of why someone is dying. House’s innovative diagnostic hypotheses often challenge the rules of hospital procedure. His boss, Dean of Medicine Lisa Cuddy, keeps him on because, more often than not, he gets it right.
And House can be almost human. In one episode House assists at an in utero surgery for a baby boy with lesions on his lungs. As House drains fluid from the cavity, the baby stretches up his tiny hand to clasp House’s giant finger. House stares, mesmerized, tender. Those moments give you hope that he can change.
House takes pleasure in making other people squirm.
But House doesn’t believe in transformation. His motto: “Everybody lies.” Even himself. He lambastes patients while curing them. Most of all, he lambastes the very idea of God. Some characters believe out of experience or need—they just can’t live without God. House pulverizes them. He is the unhappiest character in the show but also the smartest. Why keep watching? Laurie’s acting takes you inside not only House’s impatience, anger, and frustration with himself and everyone around him, but also his obvious need for and yet terrible fear of love.
House takes pleasure in making other people squirm. Every time he gets close to dealing with his demons, he chooses not to. He admits himself to a rehab clinic but disagrees with and ditches his psychiatrist. He sours his long-hoped-for relationship with Dean Cuddy because his fear of losing her keeps him from standing by her in the face of a cancer scare. When she ends the relationship, he drives his car into her dining room window. That lands him in jail.
Monk is a show about a troubled person who wants to make the world right, wants to be a better person, and tries against great odds to do it. House, on the other hand, is a man angry at a father, who wasn’t his biological father, for being hard on him. He is angry about his leg. Most of all, he is angry at the universe for not making life easier. The show is filled with references to God, all of which House regularly shouts down. “Everybody lies.”
In the end, Monk finds resolution. The show is a classic comedy. The villain who ordered the death of Monk’s beloved wife is cornered and kills himself. All the good people in Monk’s orbit—the nurse, the assistant, the captain, the lieutenant—find true love. Monk goes back to work with the captain and his assistant.
House, though, is a tragic anti-hero. His one friend, the oncologist Dr. James Wilson, has terminal cancer. House’s gift for diagnosis can’t save Wilson, so he buys two motorcycles. The two will ride across the country until Wilson is too sick to go on. House will care for him until he dies. And, then? Nothing.
Monk, a show of old-fashioned hope amid adversity, has little talk of God, but people act as though He might exist. House is a saga of defeat amid adversity with an ending that couldn’t be more nihilistic if written by Friedrich Nietzsche.
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