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Why "Monk" Stunk

Pop culture's most prominent depiction of OCD was among its worst.

Watching the recent episode of HBO’s Girls, in which OCD was so effectively portrayed, reminded me of my disdain for Monk, the Tony Shalhoub mystery/comedy series that ran on USA from 2002-2009.

Monk’s gimmick — and it would be incredibly generous to call it anything more than a gimmick — is that Tony Shalhoub’s titular “defective detective” suffers from severe OCD. Hilariously inconvenient, painfully superficial, improbably untreatable OCD, which always involves counting and cleaning (because those are Hollywood’s very favorite OCD symptoms), and which can’t be managed, or even explained accurately to exasperated bystanders, because then there couldn’t be a show.

I’ve read interviews with the show’s creator, Andy Breckman, in which he claims to understand and even to have suffered from OCD-like compulsions. But he doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s talking about, because his references for OCD appear to be drawn exclusively from television and film, where OCD symptoms are generally depicted as neatness, fastidiousness, and being Felix from The Odd Couple, and not as a spiral of madness or soul-crushing existential dread.

I have no problem with jokes about OCD, but I do have a problem with entertainment that permits audiences to laugh at the disorder without showing them the terror and despair and shame and self-loathing that many OCD sufferers endure.

And it’s a shame, because when the show isn’t depicting Monk with scorn and derision, Shalhoub’s performance is convincing and compassionate. At the beginning of the episode I analyze here, the Emmy-nominated “Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine,” Monk has an exchange with his therapist that eloquently captures the frustration and exhaustion of chronic obsessive-compulsive disorder:

“This is not the life I wanted. It’s unbearable. You know, I envy everybody. Strangers, people on the street."

"Maybe they envy you. You’re an extraordinary man."

"Yeah, I don’t want to be an extraordinary man. I want to be the guy on the bus, coming home at five o’clock, helping his kids with their homework… I’m just so tired. I’m so tired of being me... Look at me! I’m helpless. I’m pathetic. I’m not even a man, I’m a broken machine.”

Exchanges like this demonstrate how Monk might have offered an effective and affecting portrayal of OCD. But, sadly, “Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine” is probably the worst portrayal of mental disability and psychiatric treatment I’ve ever seen, in any form of media. After all, when Hannibal Lecter tears into a plate of delicious brain hors d'oeuvres, or Fight Club’s narrator shoots himself to exorcise his troublemaking alternate personality, it isn’t sold as a realistic depiction of mental disability. “Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine” adopts a veneer of respectability that makes its fantastic suggestions (drugs are magic, and medicine is a vice) especially irresponsible and dangerous.

Here’s what happens in the episode, and why, in my opinion, it’s so horrifyingly misguided:

1. Monk’s therapist bullies him into trying a new type of OCD medication. Already, we run into problems. If the therapist is a psychologist, without psychiatric credentials, then how is he prescribing medication? And if this guy is a psychiatrist, then why hasn’t he offered Monk medication before? Why is Monk paying more to see a specialist in a form of treatment he says he’s opposed to? Moments like this expose how superficial and poorly thought-out the Monk’s depiction of psychiatric treatment really is.

2. While debating whether or not to take the meds, Monk has a conversation with his deceased wife. I understand that this is a recurring device on the show; it’s trying for the “Is it his imagination? Or is she a ghost?” trope, which is hackneyed at best, and flat-out does not work in a story that engages with mental disability.

On another show, we might take these conversations metaphorically, but when the protagonist has been diagnosed with a mental illness and is seeing a therapist, it’s impossible not to conclude he’s actually hallucinating (especially because, later, he stops seeing his wife while taking the medication). Monk’s hallucinations are an embarrassing narrative shortcut that hopelessly muddles the show’s portrayal of OCD. They are symptomatic of the episode’s half-baked approach to mental illness — choosing narrative convenience and cheap sentiment over accuracy.

3. Monk eventually chooses to take the medication, and it cures his disorder instantly. He no longer has OCD symptoms. (The show doesn’t name the medication Monk takes, but if anyone has the screenwriters’ contact information please put me in touch, because I’d like to fire my psychiatrist and hire them instead.)

Sadly, use of the medication comes as a terrible price — because of course it does, because this wouldn’t be a series finale if it didn’t. Monk’s medication totally changes his personality — nuMonk is abrasive, egocentric, and oblivious to social cues. He becomes increasingly uninhibited and eventually, in a grotesque bit of intended comedy, degenerates into a Hawaiian shirt-wearing eighties cop stereotype who calls himself “the Monk.”

Basically, Monk on meds acts like he’s drunk. This is a lazy, disingenuous portrayal of the impact of psychiatric medication. It has no resemblance whatsoever to any kind of medication I’ve taken, or the role that medication plays in OCD therapy (where it’s often used to alleviate symptoms and make necessary cognitive-behavioral work a little easier). The episode portrays medicine as an indulgence, a way to hide from your problems instead of confronting them, especially because…

4. “The Monk” loses his crimefighting superpowers when he’s on medication. He’s totally useless at a crime scene: blurting out obvious statements, harassing passersby, picking up and fiddling with stuff. Incidentally, he’s also happy: “I’m happy for the first time in years — I love ‘the Monk’.”

The message seems clear. Even with a diagnosed mental illness, taking prescription medication is the same as popping pills or binge-drinking: it might make you feel a little better but you’ll embarrass yourself, you’ll disappoint your friends, you’ll lose what makes you unique and valuable as a person. Your only choice is to endure your symptoms because they are inextricably intertwined with your gifts — you should be grateful for them.

5. Monk’s friends and coworkers, deducing they know more about Monk’s condition than Monk or his therapist, snatch the pills away from him and play keep-away. At the end of the episode, his nurse grabs the pills and tosses them into a dumpster. (Note: It’s best to solicit the advice of the treating psychiatric professional before making any modifications in medication protocol.)

6. In the Monk world, medication is an all-or-nothing proposition. Even if we accept Monk’s reaction to the meds, no one suggests a different prescription. There’s no talk of reducing his dose or trying another drug.

That’s “Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine” — as far as I’m concerned, the nadir of a program that was already selling viewers a lazy, superficial and condescending portrayal of the illness that almost killed me. I remember a friend congratulated me in 2009, at the end of Monk’s final season, for outliving the show. I can’t say I was sorry to see it go. To quote Shaloub in a much better work, the 1999 Star Trek spoof Galaxy QuestMonk “was a hell of a thing.” And not in a good way.

Re: Monk (USA Network), Season 3, Episode 9, “Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine”

You may also be interested in my columns: “Girls” Gets OCD and Has “Girls” Cured OCD?

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2013