Adrian Monk, the title character of USA Network’s hit detective series Monk, spends a lot of time with the dead. Gruesome ends follow him. Sometimes he’s called to the scene of the crime, but nearly as often, murder finds him. Wherever he goes—to a hotel, a rock concert, or a resort in the California wine country—Mr. Monk is a death magnet.
Coping with such circumstances usually calls for a tough guy, a fedora-wearing, cigar-chomping "dick" with a penchant for fistfights and fast women. Not so Mr. Monk. He’s afraid of milk. And snakes. And heights. And mushrooms. And germs, especially germs.
Monk pines for symmetry. He irons his socks. He is eager to straighten any crooked thing. Evenness is crucial. He will shorten, lengthen, pour, or move any substance to make sure it’s evenly distributed.
Monk puts as much energy into maintaining order in his private world as he does into nabbing crooks. We viewers can only guess about all the sources of the great detective’s quirks.
That’s as it should be because Monk is a program about questions, big and small. For all its humor and sweetness, the show has at its heart theological questions and insights about the nature of evil, the purpose of our lives, and the limitations even the phenomenally talented must accept. These questions usually remain lodged in the subtext but are, nonetheless, central to the character’s journey.
Monk’s idiosyncrasies stem from childhood, but grief intensified them after the death of his wife Trudy, by a car bomb Monk suspects was meant for him. He has given the ensuing years to searching, without success, for her killer.
Monk’s story is one of a broken, lonely man struggling under the double-edged nature of powers he often describes as “a gift … and a curse.” His exceptional abilities of observation and deduction are the key to his accomplishments, but possessing them means that, unlike most people, Monk sees the world as it sometimes is, without the screen of respectability so many set up.
To his detriment, he over-focuses on that corruption and is blind to as much as he sees. Monk sees much that others miss, but misses much that others see.
Most damaging to him is that he is oblivious to the ordinary blessings of friendship and satisfying labor. He is like a man obsessed with a smudge on a window, who fails to see the breathtaking view beyond.
Myopia is not Monk’s only burden. His inability to solve Trudy’s murder is a source of constant sorrow for him. Monk commonly makes easy work of catching even clever criminals, but his failure to find Trudy’s killer is a symbol of another, greater mystery he cannot solve.
Monk struggles with the question of why terrible things happen. Why do the innocent suffer? Why are the kind and good-hearted often wiped away by the wicked? Or, as the lyrics to the show’s theme song put it, “Who’s in charge here?”
And this is the deeper mystery that Monk, with all his extraordinary gifts, cannot plumb.
Adrian Monk is a reluctant agnostic. Rather than bury his doubts in despair and dissipation, he seeks to resolve the question of God’s existence by making it irrelevant. Controlling his own surroundings tightly enough, he seems to think, will grant him the peace of soul he lacks. Unfortunately for Monk, whenever things are finally just right, murder happens.
Monk’s incapacity to determine whether God is in control of what appears to be the world’s chaos exacerbates his problems. Because he doubts God is bringing order to the big picture, he obsesses about order on a smaller scale. His fretting about dust, lint, and whether his side dishes touch the main course reflect this much bigger concern.
For a man with such remarkable powers of observation, Monk has great difficulty seeing the profound theological import of his life and work. His spiritual blindness, occasioned no doubt by his unrelenting grief, causes him to miss the larger spiritual picture he occupies.
Many people Monk encounters in his crimefighting have, like him, endured the murder of someone they loved. They too have questions about evil and its apparently random course. They too must wonder where God is as they suffer through their traumas.
The great irony of Monk’s life is that while he wonders where God is in the chaos and suffering of the world, while he longs for justice for the evil done to him and his wife, he, in his weakness, is a tool by which God is bringing order and justice to the world, if only provisionally and temporarily.
Monk does not see that, for the family and friends of the victims, God is present in these horrific situations through him, the nervous little man with almost supernatural powers. For those who survive, Monk does the Lord’s work.
More than once a victim’s friend has begged him to take a case, to believe that, in spite of appearances of accidental death, murder has been done. Monk always accepts. He brings low the haughty and exposes to light deeds done in the dark. In every episode he takes what appeared to be a senseless act of violence and reveals the dastardly machinations that, in fact, lay behind it.
The Christian hope is that, in the end, God will do on a grand scale what Monk does in each of his cases: pull back the shroud on the intricate causes of our suffering and show us the master plan, resolve for us questions whose answers we have failed to sleuth out on our own. This is what Monk needs if he is ever to be released from what haunts him: hope rooted in a powerful, eternal God.
It is Monk’s great burden to know that he has been wronged and that only the greatest of minds can right the offense. It is an even greater burden to believe his is the greatest of minds, and that all his power marshaled against the mystery has left him empty and exhausted. To lay his burden down, Monk must believe that a greater Mind exists and has already cracked the case; that we are only waiting for the solution to be revealed.