Monk – Episode 8-12 Review

Tony Shalhoub and Alex Wolff
Tony Shalhoub and Alex Wolff

Spoilers. There are always spoilers.

“Mr. Monk Goes Camping” is perhaps the least outstanding episode of the season so far. Certainly there were some high points, but it was uneven overall and not quite as impressive and dazzling as it might have been. Some of the humor was just a little over the top. Then there was the snooze fest that was the little group of bad guys and the less than intriguing circumstances of the crime. What usually makes Monk Monk is the bizarre nature of the murders or an “impossible” crime and that’s missing here. These are just ordinary murderous hoodlums committing an ordinary homicide. There’s no mystery to the motive; No puzzle for Monk to solve. It was understandable that he decided to go camping and leave the pedestrian police work to Captain Stottlemeyer.

Some of the shortcomings, taken individually, wouldn’t necessarily detract from an episode. Lack of a compelling central mystery isn’t an unheard of occurrence for this show, neither is the occasional uninteresting villain. Sometimes these elements just aren’t the point of a Monk episode. The point of this one would seem to be Monk overcoming many of his phobias (bears had to be on the list, sticking his hand in a fish, nature, dirt, schmoozing, etc.) all to attain his series long goal of reinstatement to the SFPD. However, just when it seems within his grasp it’s snatched away, like Lucy pulling away the football as Charlie Brown tries to kick it. Monk walks away happy, in complete denial, and we the viewers are the ones left flat on our backs gasping for breath. It may be the bitter pill of an ending that makes the whole episode a little harder to swallow.

While it may not be firing on all cylinders, the episode does have quite a few good things going for it, including an enjoyable and long overdue exploration of the friendship between Monk and Lt. Randy Disher. We also get a bit of equally belated character development for Randy and some outstanding moments for Jason Gray-Stanford (Disher) to play. The casting of all the children is quite good. Their performances are all very amusing, yet natural. It’s also nice to see that, although the outcome isn’t positive this time, at least the possibility of reinstatement is back on the table. Best of all, The Randy Disher Project is back even if only in ring tone form.

Alex Wolff plays disaffected pre-teen Brian Willis, son of the man who holds Monk’s fate in his hands. Alex is the star of the Nickelodeon series The Naked Brother’s Band, which was created and written by his mother, Polly Draper. Polly is a long time friend of Tony Shalhoub’s. She guest starred in the season one episode “Mr. Monk Takes a Vacation” as Rita Bronwyn. Shalhoub guest starred in The Naked Brother’s Band: The Movie in 2005. Now Alex is returning the favor and hopefully bringing his tweeny-bopper demographic with him for the ride.

I liked how Alex played Brian and made him a good deal more sympathetic than he could have been. He gave the role an edge of sorrow and loneliness that made the rudeness and disrespect more understandable. You get a sense that Randy’s right and despite his father issues Brian might be a good kid. He has a lot in common with Monk, who’s still got father issues of his own.

I’m not generally a fan of child performers, particularly in comedies where they frequently come off as overly cute and unnatural, but this was a talented group of youngsters. Not too saccharine for my taste. In particular David Kronenberg as the ADD little camper was very funny, as was Uriah Shelton who played the little nature expert. He also guest starred in the Little Monk web series episode “Little Monk and the New Kid” as Brian the new kid.

Perhaps the episode could have been stronger, but it was still memorable, particularly for Jason Gray-Stanford. He deemed it the most interesting location of the eighth season: “We spent about eight days in the forest shooting a camping episode, Tony and I, where to the left of you was poison oak and to the right of you was rattlesnakes. So I’m going to go with the camping episode out in the forest.”

“Remember to smile. Natalie :)”

Monk’s alarm clock beeps at 5:00am, but he’s awake and the bed hasn’t been slept in. He’s been awake all night. He looks at his police uniform hanging in his wardrobe and sees a little post it note on the door from Natalie, reminding him to smile. As he gets ready to leave he finds other little notes, with helpful hints. “Be yourself… but not too yourself.”

A little later that morning he enters an unspecified San Francisco government building, wearing a very un-Monkish suit and tie. He stops in front of the hearing room. A sign in front of it reads, “ADRIAN MONK REINSTATEMENT HEARING 1:PM.”

He looks at the clock: it’s 7:15am. He enters the empty hearing room and sits at the little table facing the bench where, in just about six hours, three panel members will deliberate on his reinstatement to the SFPD.

“How do people schmooze anyway? Is it schmooze or smooze?”

Time passes slowly for Monk as he waits nervously. At 9:33am a court clerk comes in to lay out some papers. At 10:46am a janitor goes by. At 1:12pm Monk is still waiting for the review board to show up. They enter solemnly. “Sorry we’re late,” the first panel member (Rodney Saulsberry) tells him. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Eleven years.”

The first panel member praises Monk for his work as a consultant for the police. The second panel member (Liz Burnette) chimes in, recalling the particularly difficult case she worked on that only Monk was able to crack. She calls his work “impressive” and “dazzling” and mentions that she knows his doctor, Neven Bell. “Tell him I said, hello,” she says.

Monk gets up to do just that. She tells him it can wait and chuckles, thinking he was joking. He laughs too (“It’s fun to laugh”) and so does the first panel member. The third panel member, Captain Frank Willis (Wade Williams), isn’t laughing. He’s not ready to give Monk his gun and badge back. “I’m not convinced you have the judgment. I’m not convinced you have the temperament.”

He tells Monk they’ll make a decision the following week.

Later Monk, still in his suit, describes the hearing to Natalie as they arrive at the crime scene, where Stottlemeyer is waiting for them. Monk is angry at Willis, mocking him. He wonders why a cop who recently shot his own partner was reinstated after only a month. Natalie tells him it’s because he doesn’t play the game. He doesn’t schmooze. “You got to get out there, network, kiss some butts.”

“It sounds so unsanitary.”

Stottlemeyer greets them in front of a check cashing establishment. There’s an armored car parked nearby that has just been robbed. A guard was killed. He shows them where the robbers car was parked waiting for the armored truck that was an hour late that morning. Stottlemeyer waits for a reaction from Monk, but he’s still distracted thinking and talking about his hearing. Natalie asks about fingerprints and Stottlemeyer says they wore gloves. “Open the meter” says Monk.

Despite being distracted. He points out that the robbers would have to feed the meter if they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves as they waited. Stottlemeyer orders an officer to have the coins dusted. Monk goes back to worrying about his inability to schmooze.

Lt. Disher arrives in full camping gear. He’s preparing for a weekend outing with “Buddies in Blue” an outreach program. “You know, kids from the city spending time with cops,” he tells them. “Everybody is going to get a badge.”

“Almost everybody,” Monk mutters.

Disher invites Stottlemeyer to come along, but he refuses. Monk finds some peanut shells near where the robbers’ car was parked and points out that whoever was eating them had twisted them instead of splitting them open. Stottlemeyer and Natalie agree that’s how they eat them, but Randy says he’s allergic so he wouldn’t know. (Odd thing to have him say, since it turns out to have no bearing on the plot as one might expect. For instance in “Mr. Monk and the Missing Granny” when Randy has a sudden allergy to cats, his lack of a reaction later is instrumental in catching the bad guys.) Stottlemeyer congratulates Monk on his brilliant peanut discovery and Monk says he should tell it to Captain Willis.

Randy reveals that he knows Willis. He’s the father of one of the little buddies camping that weekend, Brian Willis. (I think that’s sort of strange, too. Wouldn’t the Buddies in Blue program be for underprivileged city kids whose fathers weren’t cops perfectly capable of taking them camping themselves?) Monk gets a schmoozy idea. He’ll go with Randy. Natalie and Stottlemeyer question the wisdom of that idea, but Monk is emphatic. “I’m going camping with little Brian Willis: Camping and schmoozing all weekend long. Oh, yeah. And then he’s going to come home with a lot of stories about Adrian Monk.”

“I’m sure he will,” Stottlemeyer agrees.

(You know what would make this episode really fun? A drinking game: every time the word “schmooze” or a variation thereof is used, take a drink. I’m going to try that tonight.)

The next morning Randy is in the parking lot gathering up his the campers. (Can anyone tell me what was up with that rather odd little music selection at the beginning of this scene? Not like anything I’ve heard before on Monk.) His first camper is Will Dellman (David Kronenberg), a hyperactive little fellow. I’ve got to say if this kid is on meds his parents really need to look into adjusting the dosage. Next up is Norman Walters (Nick Nervies), who’s more interested in video games than camping, and then Nicky Philips (Uriah Shelton). He’s a little nature buff and he’s brought along a potted plant because he wants to replant it in a deciduous forest. (Sorry, but I got news for little Nature Nicky, California doesn’t have deciduous forests. Up north here we have coniferous forests. Down south they have Mediterranean forests. Deciduous forests, or at any rate what’s left of them, are found in the Eastern United States. The forest they were in looks distinctly Mediterranean to me.)

Natalie and Monk arrive. He’s still excited about the schmoozing opportunity, but no where near ready for the camping lifestyle. He doesn’t intend to remove his clothes or sleep or drink or undrink. Natalie advises him to have some fun, but he’s focused on the task at hand. “Natalie it’s a game. It’s not supposed to be fun.”

Armed with extra wipes, bug spray and his own fold-up chair, Monk goes over to say hello and schmooze with Captain Willis who arrives to drop off his less-than-thrilled son, Brian. The boy is obviously feeling neglected by his father. Monk is, of course, oblivious to their dynamic. He prattles on about kids being the future and awkwardly tries to flatter both father and son with no success. Monk puts on a show of enthusiasm for Willis as he, Randy and the kids pile into the van. “Whoo hoo!”

“It was a great story Professor Lame-O.”

In his office Stottlemeyer questions Winona (Christina Vidal), the live-in girlfriend of Luke Johnston, an ex-felon whose fingerprints were on the coins in the meter. Stottlemeyer knows Luke and his brother/partner in crime, Del. He thinks Winona knows where they’re at, but she’s not talking. He gives her a message for them. “I want you to tell them that Leland Stottlemeyer says, hi and I will see them soon.”

On the trail in the forest, Monk tries to engage Brian in conversation. He asks him what his favorite band is. Brian tells him that “Kissing my butt to impress my father” isn’t going to work. “You can’t make him like you. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

The boys complain that they’re getting hungry. As he munches on some sort of food, Randy tells them they’ll stop at noon for lunch. When they ask what time it is, he proposes they use a sundial and he pushes his walking stick into the dirt… in the shade, because it’s more fun than using a watch. He consults the sundial, and after a quick glance at his watch announces that it’s 10:25. The kids groan. They’re hungry. Randy suggests berries by the roadside, but Nature Nicky objects. “They’re called Moonseed berries. They’re extremely toxic.”

Sorry again, Nicky. Those are also found in the eastern United States. They don’t grow wild in California. Of course, it’s still not smart to advise children to eat any wild berries… unless you don’t intend to bring them home. If Nicky hadn’t been along who knows what would have happened. I agree with Monk: in the forest everything is potentially very bad for you. Randy tells them all they’ll make it over the next ridge and then eat. “This is fun,” he reminds them. “Fun, fun, fun.”

Back in the city Winona phones the Bobbsey Twins of crime, Luke and Del Johnston (Maurice Compte and Rodney Eastman), to warn them Stottlemeyer is on to them. They should make sure they cover their tracks. She clearly demonstrates that she’s an accessory. Apparently Stottlemeyer is short staffed, what with Randy and Monk in the forest, and he has no one available to follow Winona. Presumably if someone sat on her long enough Luke would have shown up for that talk sooner or later. Luke and Del take Winona’s warning to heart and they head up to their cabin at Spider Lake, which is very coincidentally exactly where Randy, Monk and the kids are communing with nature.

The Buddies in Blue find a good camping site and at the camping site the boys find a bunch of shotgun shell casings. Monk tells Brian they may have been left by “juvies” playing hooky and that he used to play hooky himself. Brian is unimpressed. “Somebody kill me.”

The Johnston boys arrive in the Spider Lake parking lot where the Buddies in Blue van is parked. “We got company,” Luke announces, because I guess he just felt he had to say something obvious and sound like he was in a bad action film at the same time.

Back at the campsite all the tents are up and Monk is arranging kindling for the fire in a log cabin like little structure, which Brian sullenly knocks over. (Okay, so that was a little obnoxious.) Nicky rushes into camp with a fishing pole and a fish to go with it. He used one of the shot gun shell casings they found earlier as a sinker for the line. Disher proudly takes a picture with his cell phone as the bad guys lurk in the woods watching them. Will is on his own little fishing expedition. He goes through Disher’s pack and finds his badge and gun. Randy quickly snatches it away from him, but the bad guys have already seen it. They now know he’s a cop, which doesn’t seem to deter them in the least.

Around the campfire that night Disher tells, or rather tries to tell, the story of the Spider Lake maniac. A year ago that night a dangerous maniac had gone on a killing spree after escaping from a near by mental clinic. Monk immediately begins picking apart the story, until Randy is finally forced to give up. “Thanks to modern medicine, the Spider Lake Maniac now lives in a public housing project with his pet cat and he never bothers anyone.”

After sealing up the food and hanging it out of reach of wild animals. The boys go to their tents, while Monk and Randy have a heart to heart talk. Monk wants to know how he endures the teasing from other police personnel. He tells Monk it used to bother him, but after seeing a bumper sticker on a car that said “Happiness is a choice” he had an epiphany and chose to be happy. It turns out the car was involved in an accident, the occupants were dead, and it was on fire, but Randy takes his epiphanies where he can get them.

Later that night, as Monk sleeps standing up against a tree, Luke and Del sneak into the camp and scatter food from the packs around the campsite. When Monk awakens pre-dawn, he finds a bear rummaging through the camp. He screams like a girl, literally. Seconds later he, Randy, and the children all run for their lives through the forest in the dark.

“Dude, this is gonna rock your world. Are you ready for this? I’m Randy Disher.”

Later after the sun comes up they finally stop running. The boys tease Monk for screaming and crying like a girl and Nicky advises him that he should have spoken calmly to the bear, not yelled at it. Nicky also says it’s important to stay hydrated, so they all decide to go back to the lake they passed a couple of times while they ran around in circles. “Great idea,” says Monk. “Let’s die by the lake.”

Meanwhile Luke and Del search the camp site for bullet shells and after finding 30 or so. They decide to give up. “If we can’t find them, then they won’t either,” Del reasons.

Unless, of course, they already found them, idiot. They hear Randy’s cell phone ringing. The ring tone is “I Don’t Need a Badge” by the Randy Disher Project. “Don’t answer it,” Luke tells Del. It’s not hard to see why these two went into crime. Rocket science was out of the question. Del opens the phone and the sees the picture Nicky with the fish and their shell casing.

Down by the lake Brian is using Nicky’s fishing pole. He catches a very big fish. For the first time on the trip, he’s thrilled. “It’s my first fish! It’s like my first anything!”

Monk proposes that he keep the fish and show it to his father. Brian likes the idea, but everyone else thinks that they should eat it, since they don’t have any other food. As they argue about it Luke and Del arrive with shotguns. They pretend to be helpful hunters and they give Randy directions to the highway. They act impressed by the size of Brian’s catch and offer him $50. Monk notices that Luke is eating peanuts and twisting off the shells. Brian figures anyone foolish enough to offer him $50 for a fish can pay $500, but it’s not for sale in any case. Randy’s cell phone rings in Luke’s pocket. (Again, not too bright.) Randy recognizes the tune, but it doesn’t occur to him that it’s his phone. He thinks that the helpful hunters are fans of The Randy Disher Project. They say goodbye and leave, hoping that they didn’t blow their cover. Seriously, guys? They deserve to get caught.

Of course, Monk has figured it out. He knows those were the guys and that they’ll be back to get the shell casing.

“I guess it got bored.”

After realizing that his gun is at the campsite, Randy decides they should escort the children back to the safety of the highway as quickly as possible. Brian won’t give Monk the fish even though Monk tells him they just want the sinker. (What is the kid, slow or something?) He runs off. Monk advises Randy to take the others and he chases after Brian. When he catches up to him (which is pretty good for a 50 year old chasing a 12 year old) they play tug of war with the fish, until the bear shows up. Brian sense of survival kicks in and he quickly agrees to give the fish to the bear as Monk proposes, but first Monk takes the fish and removes the sinker from its mouth. He explains to the bear that it’s “material evidence in a homicide.” Monk throws him the fish. “Bon appétit.”

The bear, however, is uninterested in fish. He’s probably waiting for Twinkies. He roars at them. Remembering Nicky’s earlier advice, Monk begins to talk very calmly. The bear responds and Brian says he should tell the bear the story. Monk doesn’t know what story to tell. “It doesn’t matter,” says Brian. “He’s a bear.”

So Monk tells the bear all about the crime and how the killers were target shooting in the woods. They knew the shell casings could connect them to the armored car robbery, because some mythical park ranger had seen them in that clearing. The bear has heard enough. He wanders off. “Nice work,” Brian tells Monk.

Meanwhile Randy tells the other kids to wait for him on the trail. He doubles back. Luke and Del spot the kids waiting and head towards them. Randy, armed with only a big stick, jumps out from behind the bushes and conks Luke over the head. He gets his rifle and then he gets the drop on Del.

A little later Stottlemeyer has arrived to take the two criminals to jail as promised. “Good job. Both of you,” he tells Monk and Disher.

It’s nice to see Randy is getting a little genuine praise for a change. He earned it. Natalie is there too. She wonders what happened to Monk’s hand which is wrapped in bandages. He explains with disgust that it’s been in a fish. Brian comes by to tell Monk that “Mojo Wire” is his favorite band. “You’re welcome,” says Monk.

Natalie’s confused. “I didn’t hear him say thank you.”

“I did,” Monk says as Brian goes over to tell his father what a great guy Adrian Monk is.

“I’m back, Baby!”

The next week Monk is back in the hearing room. Captain Willis wants to speak first. He credits Adrian with saving his son’s life and says that he challenged him and “stood up to him in a way I was never able to do?”

Huh? He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who has any trouble standing up to his kid. He seems more like the kind of guy who has trouble spending time with his kid. Seems like there was a rewrite somewhere and that line was accidentally left in. In any case, he’s had a change of heart and he approves the recommendation that Monk be reinstated. Monk is overjoyed, but the first board member reminds him that the vote must be unanimous. He’s reviewed Monk’s record and decided to vote against him. The second board member agrees. She’s also decided to vote against him. Monk doesn’t seem to hear them. He thanks them and tells them they won’t be sorry.

In the hallway, Randy, Natalie and the Captain are waiting. Randy is listening at the door. He tells them Monk is taking his failure to be reinstated “surprisingly well.” In fact when he emerges from the hearing Monk seems to be in complete denial. “I’m back. Leland, I’m back.”

“Mr. Monk, do you understand what happened in there?” Natalie asks.

Apparently not. He wants to go celebrate. Disher seems to think Monk may be employing his “happiness is a choice” philosophy of life. Natalie thinks they should tell him. Stottlemeyer thinks they should tell him after lunch.

“Mr. Monk Goes Camping” was filmed earlier in the year, this past spring, so this ending is really not too surprising. Had the episode aired earlier it would have been too soon to resolve the reinstatement storyline. However, I still hoped since it was delayed until this late in the season that they had decided to alter the ending and have Monk reinstated. No such luck, but since one of the last four episodes is entitled “Mr. Monk and the Badge” it’s a pretty sure thing that he’ll get another shot at it. Undoubtedly my unmet heightened expectations about the ending may have colored my impression of the episode, but there really were a lot of nice moments. Besides, even a weaker episode of Monk is better than almost anything on Network TV or cable for that matter.

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