"Mr. Monk and the Critic" is, in a word, bland. I really wanted to like this episode better than I did. While we're given the interesting scenario of Natalie solving a case, the execution is anything but. This is the sort of episode that makes me wonder, have the writers finally completely exhausted the well of clever "perfect" crimes? A few moments of good comedy elevate this above last week's unspectacular affair, but it's still, ultimately, a standard forgettable later-season episode of Monk.
Natalie's daughter, Julie (who seems to have grown up big-time since her last appearance), has scored a role in a musical at the community theatre, and Monk and Natalie are in attendance - as is ferocious local newspaper critic John Hannigan. And when Hannigan's review calls Julie's song "forgettable", Natalie stubbornly insists that he was, in fact, not in the theatre at all, instead being responsible for a murder committed nearby. (If you ask me, Julie's song actually WAS sort of forgettable, in all honesty, but whatever.) The writing wasn't quite all there, but I do have to commend Traylor Howard's performance here - she's definitely grown into this role reasonably well since those awkward earlier days, handling this Natalie-heavy episode wonderfully. As for the mystery, though...there's not much of one at all. This is just pathetic. There's absolutely no doubt as to who the killer is on our end of things (Dylan Baker's rather distinctive voice being partly to blame), and the ultimate solution is staggeringly weak. He just switched places with some other guy? Really? With as much as Natalie was looking up at him throughout the show, it's a pretty big coincidence that she didn't see anything. These "airtight alibi" episodes have really been going downhill lately. They used to be pretty brilliant, but this uses the blandest, most obvious solution possible. And their method of proving it? Unbelievable, if not outright illegal.
I also have to mention my annoyance with the paycheck scene. I know Monk's pretty tight with money, but writing Natalie a purposefully bad check seems like a return to the unnecessarily mean-spirited Monk that plagued the latter half of season seven. If there's one element that I liked, it's the scenes with Monk falling in love with the theatre's amazing public restrooms (with a restroom attendant!), which are quite funny - sometimes it just works better when the show plays to Adrian's quirks like this, rather than making us suffer through a terrible, overwrought OCD scene when the world doesn't go his way.
Those scenes aren't enough to redeem this episode, but they do help to make it a bit more watchable. It's unfortunate, though, that this final season, which started out promisingly, is slipping back into the mediocrity that plagued the last couple seasons. Maybe when we return to the Trudy arc, things will get back off the ground, but at the moment I am unimpressed. This episode was just forgettable. Believe me, I sat through the whole thing. Really. I wasn't out murdering some chick while it was on...