Bringing back a long-running series is tricky. Do you keep things the same or make some cast or story changes in an effort to keep things fresh? For USA's successful series "Monk," which returns for a seventh season tonight, one could say that a cast change was part of a divine plan when actor Stanley Kamel, who played Monk's therapist, Dr. Kroger, suffered a fatal heart attack in April.
"We had just all been together for the Upfronts in Los Angeles just about four days before," says Tony Shaloub, who stars as Adrian Monk and talked about the new season of the series along with new co-star Hector Elizondo. "[Stanley] just seemed in great spirits, really looking forward to the new season. You know, happy that we were coming back and seemed just better than ever."
Despite the sadness of Kamel's passing, a character like Monk, who has suffered from extreme obsessive-compulsive behavior since the brutal (and still unsolved) murder of his wife, cannot go long without his therapist. The season premiere addresses Dr. Kroger's passing and introduces Emmy-winning actor Hector Elizondo as Monk's new therapist, Dr. Neven Bell. Elizondo talked about finding Bell appealing and a more comfortable fit than he could have imagined. "I thought it would require a bit more of an adjustment than it has, but it seemed like an old pair of slippers... I just put my feet in there and put one foot in front of the other and it hasn't been a puzzle at all."
Since Elizondo and Shaloub both have long accomplished acting careers behind them, it was something of a surprise to both of them that "Monk" is the first time they have worked together. "I think the thing that struck me," Shaloub explained, "was that somehow I felt like I knew him and felt like maybe we might have worked together and... then [realized] we haven't and wondered why we hadn't worked together because we certainly had a lot of friends and colleagues in common." Elizondo added that, "It didn't take long for us to have a sense that we had worked together � I'm talking about ten seconds actually. And that helped a great deal, But still, walking into the family unit and finding a place � a seat at the table is not always easy."
In comparing his experience of stepping into the cast and crew of "Monk," Elizondo gives credit to Tony Shaloub when he stated that the experience, "has been incredibly easy mainly because of Tony [and] because the show runs so very well... and when it comes from the top, it kind of comes from Mr. Shaloub." Elizondo humorously added that, "there's an old saying that the fish stinks from the head, right? Well, this is fresh."
Coming from similar backgrounds in the theater, both actors talked about how they welcome the many different kinds of roles they've played in their careers. Shaloub talked about his training as an actor and said that, "at the Yale Drama School, the emphasis was always on character work and transformation and trying not to play yourself too much." Elizondo agreed and didn't seem surprised that the two actors get along so well. "Coming from that same background and that same work ethic and that training, there's a camaraderie there and camaraderie immediately."
Getting back to the new season of "Monk," Shaloub mentioned that delving deeper into Monk's past is a part of the agenda this year. "I know we're doing an episode coming up called 'Mr. Monk Gets Hypnotized' and... he's asked to go back to a time in his life when he felt good and was happy, and there was a brief period when he was about nine or ten years old until he sort of gets lost back in the hypnosis, into being a young boy."
There's also going to be a slight hint of romance for Monk which, as longtime viewers know, has never really been seen before... "We [are] doing an episode now actually called 'Mr. Monk and the Pretty Face,'" Shaloub revealed. "And it's a real crack in [Monk's] veneer really, frankly, because it's the first time that he's entertained the idea of any kind of attraction or romantic interest in a woman since Trudy's death. And it's troubling to him but, at the same time, it's exhilarating."
Also, Monk will have to adjust to a new therapist and Shaloub addressed the changes are good for Monk in the long run. "Hector's character, Dr. Bell, is a little more no-nonsense. He's more direct, I think, than Dr. Kroger was. Dr. Kroger often handled Monk with kid gloves and was almost differential to a fault and tread very carefully." Overall, Shaloub expressed that it's good for the show that theses changes are coming, "at a good time in terms of the whole arc of the series because we see these small changes in Monk occurring now. [And] we're seven years in and I think that's where people are going to see the main difference."
Shaloub also talked about the fact that "Monk" is going into its seventh year and is still going strong. "I think it all stems from the fact that very early on in season one and two," he explained, "[the writers] very wisely or possibly accidentally gave us a very wide range with which to work." He additionally offered that, "some shows kind of have a way [of] painting themselves into a corner. This is what we can do and this is what we can't do and then you're kind of limited." It helps, he said, that there's a strong tonal mix from one episode to the next. "Some episodes can be light and frothy. Some can be really dark and poignant and we don't feel a sense of accountability from one week to the next tin terms of that consistency of tone."
Again, Elizondo gives Shaloub and the character of Monk much credit for the show's success. "Mr. Shaloub has created a character who... is uncompromisingly real and empathetic. And he's not a manipulation and you want to see him in your home every week. You don't get characters like this very often."
Finally, there are several guest stars visiting "Monk" this season including Robert Loggia, William Atherton, Eric McCormack and Brad Garrett, who appears in the season opener. Garrett turn as a handyman who helps Monk when he purchases a new home should surprise viewers since Garrett's role veers away from his usual comedic presence in a big way. In terms of securing choice guest stars, Shaloub explained that he definitely has a hand in the process. "When I see a role in a script and I think of someone that I've worked with or a friend of mine that I've always wanted to work with, it usually involved making a personal call."
If you have yet to check out "Monk," the season opener tonight is a great place to start with it's mix of humor, danger and a nice, sympathetic tribute to Stanley Kamel's Dr. Kroger. However, if you're already a fan, you'll be more than happy that the series is back and as sharp as ever.
"Monk" premieres tonight on the USA Network at 9:00/8:00c, followed by the season premiere of "Psych."