It's really weird to see this series go. "Monk" is one of the first shows I became genuinely emotionally invested in, way back when I was 12, and even as the series developed an increasingly annoying style in later seasons, I still made a habit of tuning in every Friday night. It was one of those comforting constants in life, one of those things I could consistently depend on to be there, one of those stabilizing factors I came to rely on more than I'd expected. Even if, objectively, eight seasons was a few too many for a great show that just couldn't maintain its high standards in the later years. (I fully expect some disagreement on that.)
Our protagonist, Adrian Monk, is a fascinating character. More than just another detective show, the series chronicles the life of an essentially broken man trying to claw his way out of the emotional abyss, something pretty much everyone can relate to in some way. (Being a person with a variety of problems interacting with the outside world myself, I've always felt a particularly strong kinship with the character.) To quote Stottlemeyer in "Mr. Monk and the End, Part One": "I'd always thought that Monk was not all there, like there was something missing, like he was less than human. But he wasn't missing anything. He was seeing more than anybody. He was feeling more than anybody. That was his problem. He was too human." And that's what makes the character so charming.
Unfortunately, the show's later seasons, despite being more character-driven by nature, seemed to have a hard time balancing the elements that make up Monk, painting a character who's just quirky for the sake of being quirky, with little of the sympathetic bits that made the character so enthralling. Season seven, in particular, inexplicably portrays the character as a fundamentally mean-spirited jerk, horribly mistreating Natalie in "Mr. Monk on Wheels" and verbally abusing the woman who just helped him save Trudy's parking garage in "Mr. Monk Fights City Hall". Still, even in the darkest of times, the performance of Tony Shalhoub is always terrific, at least, salvaging the weird characterizations as best he can.
The supporting cast is also above average, with the brilliant-but-sadly-underused Ted Levine as Captain Leland Stottlemeyer being a particular standout, wonderfully portraying the gradual shift from exasperation to deep friendship with Monk. Jason Gray-Stanford as Lieutenant Disher has his moments, especially early on, but later in the series he's written way too over-the-top in his buffoonery, becoming a character whom one barely believes could tie his shoes, let alone handle actual policework. Traylor Howard is adequate as Natalie Teeger, doing as well as she can with what is a fairly uninteresting character. If you couldn't tell, I prefer Bitty Schram in the role of Monk's assistant - her polar opposite chemistry with Adrian makes for a far more interesting partnership.
The first three seasons of this show, especially the second, are classic, among the best television ever produced. "Mr. Monk and the Three Pies" is pretty much the pinnacle of the series, introducing Adrian's brother (and Mycroft Holmes analogue) Ambrose, played expertly by John Turturro, with a story that masterfully balances comedy and drama. But then things started to go wrong, as the writers began to ditch the show's slightly dark detective show roots and move in a tackier, sitcom-esque direction. Some fans apparently liked this, but I am not one of them. It's not that I don't like super-goofy comedy (for instance, I'm also a fan of "Psych"), but it just doesn't work in this series. The clever mysteries that had been the backbone of the series gradually fell by the wayside, as ridiculous plots began to take center stage. Season seven is the arguable low point, featuring plots that involve identical twins and hypnosis.
And that's why it's so hard to come up with a single rating for the series as a whole. For as often as this series achieves pure brilliance (other highlights include "Mr. Monk and the Candidate", "Mr. Monk is On the Run", and "Mr. Monk and the Employee of the Month" - if you haven't seen them yet, stop dilly-dallying and see them already!), it also achieves flat-out mediocrity with obnoxious frequency (episodes like "Mr. Monk and the Three Julies" and "Mr. Monk and His Biggest Fan" - steer clear!). It's one of my favourite shows, but it certainly isn't a perfect show, and that's an important distinction. "Monk" holds a very special place in my heart, even if there are quite a few episodes I'll skip when I sit down for a DVD marathon. Because when this show actually does fire on all cylinders, it makes sifting through all the less than appealing bits worthwhile.