Monk – Episode 8-9 Review

Tony Shalhoub and John Carroll Lynch
Tony Shalhoub and John Carroll Lynch

Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers!

“Happy Birthday, Mr. Monk” is the first Monk episode title ever that doesn’t begin with “Mr. Monk….” No particular significance, just saying. It’s a little more action-packed than usual, but aside from that it’s a classic Monk episode, with some cleverly interwoven plot lines and some solid guest performances. However, the highlight of the episode has to be having all four of the regular actors playing major roles in the story.

Virginia Madsen, sans the blond bombshell look, joins the cast as recurring character T.K. Jensen. She’s a pretty reporter who Captain Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) falls for like a ton of bricks. Considering what happened with the last woman he fell that hard for, (Linda Fusco, played by Sharon Lawrence, who turned out to be a very bad girlfriend) I hope he does a thorough background check before her next episode. Admittedly this relationship seems a tad rushed, but they do make a nice couple and Ted Levine deserves the added screen time.

As pleased as he probably is, no one was more thrilled than Traylor Howard to have her on the set. “Virginia Madsen is here. She’s very cool. I really like her,” Traylor said in an interview during filming. “We don’t have that many women around. It’s nice to have that good energy around. She’s great.”

John Carroll Lynch plays Kurt Pressman. He’s a very busy film actor who I know best from his creepy performances in Zodiac and Gothika. Again it’s not too hard to guess he’s the guy. (Is it just me or has anyone else noticed a trend this season. If they say a character’s full name three times or more that means they’re the killer.) Although the how was a little tricky. Lynch is really the best at playing the ordinary guy who turns out to be a cold-blooded criminal.

There are three co-stars reprising their roles in this episode and they’re all back for the third time. Michael Patrick McGill who played Sgt. Steiner in this season’s “Mr. Monk and the Voodoo Curse” and a uniform cop in “Mr. Monk Goes to the Bank” is back in uniform for “Happy Birthday”. His partner in the “Bank” episode, Michael Coleman, also reprises his part for this one. He previously played, you guessed it, a cop in “Mr. Monk and His Biggest Fan”. They’re the officers who joke about the unfortunate guy who got caught in the shredder. Sean Blodgett returns to his role as Dr. Z, the medical examiner from “Voodoo Curse”. He was a CSI tech in “Mr. Monk and the Man who Shot Santa” as well. His role is expanded a little in this episode and he gets a nice bit of business with Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford). Also notable in the cast is Aaron Linker who plays little Adrian Monk in the birthday party flashback. He plays Little Monk in the webisode series on the USA Network site.

Solving the two crimes, Monk’s surprise party, and the introduction of the Captain’s new romance, all combine for a very suspenseful episode with a delicate balance of humor and drama. On the whole, the season so far is just as good as Tony Shalhoub said it would be before it began: “I think people will be really gratified and startled maybe to see that the quality remains really, really high, that the stories are interesting, that we do a bit of what we’ve tried to do every season, which is kind of break our own rules and do some unexpected things.”

“Wait…! No, no, no!”

Late at night a bespectacled janitor (David Pires) cleans a deserted office building as a shadowy intruder breaks into the basement and lies in wait for him. When he gets there the janitor brings his load of garbage to the top of a conveyor belt where he feeds it into the mouth of the gigantic trash compacter. The compactor jams and he turn off the power switch so he can safely fix it. Once inside its massive jaws he removes a tire iron jamming the works and sees the mysterious man by the circuit breaker. The intruder flips the switch back on. The janitor tries to scramble out, but it’s too late. We don’t really see anything, at least nothing like you get to see on network television these days, but the janitor’s screams and the crunchy noises and the blood splattering across the 310 DAYS WITHOUT AN ACCIDENT SIGN are convincing enough.

“You said, triple. All right, what happened? Did somebody get better, Natalie?”

The next day as Monk and Natalie walk into the squad room, she’s trying to find out what he wants for his upcoming 50th birthday. He doesn’t want anything. “If you buy me something then I have to pretend to like it and then I have to remember to thank you and then I have to return it and it’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare.”

Monk notices the room is empty. Everyone’s hiding in the Captain’s office waiting to surprise him. He quickly figures out something is up when he sees all the cups and plates are missing. He interrogates Natalie until she admits there is a surprise party. She asks him to play along, but he refuses. “I hate birthdays,” he tells her and he walks out.

Randy pokes his head out of the Captain’s office when he sees Monk leave. Natalie shrugs. No party after all. Stottlemeyer’s not surprised. “What were we thinking? He’s the best detective in the world.”

Natalie is still trying to convince Monk that his birthday is worth celebrating when they arrive at the trash compacter crime scene. Natalie’s exuberance is considerably dampened by the body bag containing what’s left of the Janitor, Bradley Foster. After Stottlemeyer, Disher and two uniformed cops (Michael Patrick McGill and Michael Coleman) indulge themselves in some macabre humor about the “accident” Monk gives them a sobering run down. “He was probably still alive when he dropped into the gears. Those rotating blades must have ripped his spinal column and shredded his lungs. He must have been screaming and begging for his life the whole way down.” That promptly puts an end to the jokes.

They question the building manager Paul Wellman (Gregory Thompson) who found the body. He tells them he turned on the lights and saw blood trickling from the compactor. Monk wonders who turned the lights off. Stottlemeyer realizes that means murder and orders the building sealed. Upon further questioning Mr. Wellman reveals that the only other person in the building that night was Richard Meckler, a patent attorney.

“A self cleaning vacuum? Do I wake or do I dream?”

The gang goes to question Meckler at the unveiling of a new self cleaning vacuum a client of his has invented. He introduces the inventor, Kurt Pressman, to a crowd of reporters and interested parties. Monk is stunned and delighted to hear about the new invention. A little later Randy questions Meckler, who’s there with his wife (Annabeth Miller), while Stottlemeyer hangs out at the bar and picks up chicks… I mean, he politely approaches a beautiful woman and tells her how much he likes her magazine. She’s a reporter for Consumer Currents, named T.K. Jensen (Virginia Madsen), but she’s reluctant to tell him what the initials stand for.

Meanwhile starry-eyed Monk approaches the inventor Kurt Pressman (John Carroll Lynch). He’s eager to know how it works and how he can order one… or two. Pressman, who’s carrying a couple of beverages, impatiently brushes Monk off, promising to put him on the waiting list. He joins Mr. and Mrs. Meckler who are still talking to Disher. He takes a sip of one of the drinks to determine if it’s the diet drink for Meckler and then gives it to Mrs. Meckler for her to test. She does and then gives it to her husband.

A few minutes pass as Stottlemeyer tries to guess what T.K.’s T stands for while Monk admires the vacuum. Meckler begins to gasp and turn red and then falls to the floor. Randy administers CPR (or is that cardiocerebral resuscitation?), but Meckler’s a goner.

“I’m throwing you a party, boss. It could be anytime, anywhere.”

Later at his apartment Monk has got himself one of the brand new self cleaning vacuums or rather Stottlemeyer kindly had T.K. use her pull at the consumer magazine to get one for him. He’s on cloud nine, dancing around the apartment with his shiny new appliance. Anyone remember the Dirt Devil vacuum commercial with Fred Astaire? Sort of like that… except he’s alive and it’s an actual vacuum. I think. In any case, Tony Shalhoub’s no Fred Astaire, but it was still pretty cute. It may be the happiest we’ve ever seen Monk.

When Natalie arrives she tries to lure him to her place for yet another surprise party attempt, but he refuses. She demands to know the reason and he agrees to tell her. “But you can’t tell anyone. I’ve never even told Dr. Bell.”

She gives him her word. He draws the curtains and begins to very grimly tell her the story of his tenth birthday and Cowboy Hank and his lasso. Clearly Natalie’s expecting his story to go in a direction which would call Cowboy Hank’s good character into question, but Monk’s real memory ends more prosaically. When Hank left so did all the children at his party, demonstrating to him that he had no real friends. That’s why Monk hates birthday. Natalie thinks that’s lame. She’s more determined than ever to throw him a party.

Sottlemeyer and Disher search janitor Bradley Foster’s apartment for clues while they wait for Monk to show up. They discover that a computer and some tools are missing. Natalie arrives, but Monk won’t come in thinking it may be a surprise party. When Stottlemeyer yells for him he reluctantly enters, but he’s still suspicious. The captain assures him that they wouldn’t use a murder victim’s apartment for a surprise party (there’s probably even a law against that), but Monk isn’t convinced. They give Monk some information on the victim. He was an MIT graduate who started drinking and fell on hard times. Monk is still looking for evidence of a party, but Stottlemeyer directs him to concentrate on the case at hand. Once he does, he quickly finds a clue: a chewed on pen which indicates that patent attorney Richard Meckler had been in the apartment.

“If this is my party, it’s the second worst birthday party I’ve ever had.”

So it’s on to the morgue to find out what killed Meckler. Monk takes his surprise party paranoia to a new level, peeking at the corpses under the sheets and pulling open the body storage drawers. The medical examiner Dr. Z (Sean Blodgett) announces that Meckler was poisoned with the extremely fast acting compound “sodium fluoroacetate.” (I looked it up. It actually takes at least 30 minutes, not ten seconds, for symptoms to appear and hours to actually die. You know, just in case you were wondering.)

They decide to recreate the crime (the poisoning, not the trash compacter). Since she was there the first time, and since Stottlemeyer wants an excuse to see her again, he invites T.K. to the re-creation. Everybody is assigned their role. Stottlemeyer is Meckler and Natalie is Mrs. Meckler and Randy, bless his heart, is Randy even though he’d rather be Meckler because, “He has more to do.”

They go through the motions of the crime, the highlight of which is Stottlemeyer feigning Meckler’s death, and decide it couldn’t have been the drink since Pressman and Mrs. Meckler both drank from the same cup. They can’t figure out how he was poisoned. The pen he was chewing on was clean and Disher would have noticed if Meckler has been injected. Randy proposes that it could have been a dart or a dartarang (a blow dart with a long elastic wire attached). When T.K. questions this theory Stottlemeyer advises her to just nod her head and say “Maybe.” Which she does. Everyone else nods, too.

Later at his apartment Monk and Natalie try to figure out why his new self cleaning vacuum isn’t working. They soon determine that Monk cleaned the “air actuated ionized electronic filter” even though the instruction booklet and the instructions on the vacuum said not to. Monk’s despondent, but then he realizes that the inventor can fix it. Pressman’s address is on the brochure (603 Vinton Street!). Monk wants to rush right over even though he’ll have to cancel an appointment with Dr. Bell. Natalie objects and Monk figures out that he’s ruined another of her surprise plans. “I don’t believe it. You are diabolical. You’re planning a party in Dr. Bell’s office. My therapist’s office! Have you no shame?”

Natalie sarcastically concedes defeat and warns him he may end up spending all his future birthdays alone. “Deal,” he tells her and rushes off to get the vacuum fixed.

They take the vacuum to Pressman. He’s surprised to see them and at first he thinks they’re there to question him. (Guilty conscience much?) Monk explains they’re there to get the vacuum fixed. Although Pressman says he’s too upset by his friend Meckler’s death to work, Monk persists and pesters him into trying to fix it. Pressman puts on a tool belt after adjusting the strap. He asks them about the case, which Natalie says they can’t discuss, but then she tells him Monk is probably close to solving it. Pressman says he can’t fix the vacuum right away and he advises Monk it will take a few days. “God bless you and your work,” Monk tells Pressman as Natalie hustles him out the door.

Natalie and Monk are driving home, still discussing not having a party for him, when Monk notices they’re being followed by a black SUV. He instructs her to make a sharp left. The SUV pursues them. A call comes in from Stottlemeyer and Natalie uses a very cool and legal hands free device to answer it. “We just got word that somebody put out a $20,000 contract on your life,” He tells them.

Natalie wants more details. “On both of us or just him?”

They hear gunshots and Monk advises Natalie to go away from the bullets.

“That was real. We had to kill the guard”
“Had to make it look authentic.”

They speed through the streets, which don’t look much at all like San Francisco, with the SUV in hot pursuit until they’re cornered at a warehouse. They get out of the car and see a security guard. Natalie asks him for help, but he’s shot and falls to the ground. They run behind the warehouse. There’s no way out. Natalie suggest hiding in a nearby dumpster or the port-a-john. Monk isn’t crazy about either option. “Mr. Monk you have to choose,” she tells him.

“I choose death.”

She shoos him into the dumpster and closes the lid. After a moment the dumpster begins to roll and they hear voices discussing how to get rid of them. They’re told to get out. They shield their eyes from the light as they emerge and the voice asks “Got any last words?”

“Yes, I do,” says Natalie. “There’s something I want to say. Happy birthday, Mr. Monk!”

A warehouse full of Monk’s friends (presumably) shout, “Surprise!” And he is surprised. Natalie wins.

The party is on. It may not be as much fun as vacuuming, but Monk seems to be enjoying himself. Natalie has invited Kurt Pressman to the party and she brings him over to wish Monk a happy birthday. Monk walks away leaving his drink unattended and Pressman surreptitiously picks it up.

Stottlemeyer has a brief scene with T.K. who he’s invited to the party. She loves his parties she tells him, but “If nobody gets shot or poisoned I’m going to be very disappointed.”

Pressman goes outside and removes the ice from Monk’s drink, replacing it with ice he’s brought in a thermos. Moments later after they sing “Happy Birthday” (well, they don’t actually sing it, they just imply that they sing it, because that song costs money, you know) Monk picks up his beverage unaware that Pressman has tampered with it. Before he drinks it he notices one of the cops (Michael Coleman) loosen his belt in preparation for the cake soon to be consumed. Monk remembers Pressman loosening the tool belt while fixing the vacuum and he remembers that he didn’t know which tool to use.

Monk announces that he knows what happened. Bradley Foster was the real inventor and he took his plans to Meckler the patent attorney. Meckler, knowing how valuable the invention would be, killed Foster and had Pressman pose as the inventor. Pressman, who knew the value of a vacuum cleaner himself, turned on his partner and poisoned him with the ice cubes in his diet soda. When he and Mrs. Meckler took their sips the ice had not yet melted and released the poison. Monk has the evidence right in his hand. His drink has square ice cubes unlike everyone else who has round ice cubes. He knows that Pressman has poisoned his drink. Monk gives the evidence to Stottlemeyer who instructs Randy to cuff the suspect. “Don’t need handcuffs,” says a gruff voice off screen as a lasso falls over Pressman’s head. It’s Cowboy Hank!

Apparently he was still alive and available so Natalie booked him for the party.

“I’m sorry, but my brakes are shot.”

After Cowboy Hank goes moseying back to the old cowboy home, the party continues. Stottlemeyer gets T.K. alone and suggests they go on a date… or two. She suggests they may want to slow down, but he wants to go full speed ahead and tells her he’s “never felt like this.” (Whatever “this” is.)

He asks her name again and she tells him it’s Trudy. There may well be more significance to the character being named Trudy, but we’ll have to wait and find out. “Well, that’s not going to work,” Stottlemeyer says, tapping the brakes just a little. He suggests they stick with T.K.. “T.K. is cute.” She sure is and she has a lovely little giggle. He’s a lucky man.

Natalie reminds Monk that the party is still going on and Cowboy Hank is long gone. He admits it’s the best party he’s ever had, but he tells her never to do it again as he feeds her a piece of cake.

As much as he resists it, how great is it that Monk has friends surrounding him now and making up for his fractured childhood? 40 years after all his childhood “friends” walked out on him he’s finally found the real thing.

Next Week: Mr. Monk and Sharona

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