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‘Monk’ Crafted USA Into Cable Powerhouse

Adrian "Monk", the USA's (and the USA Network's) favorite obsessive-compulsive detective, is looking to get his badge back from the San Francisco police - and then hang it up.

"Monk" began its eighth and final season Friday (9 p.m. ET/PT) after a trailblazing run that helped vault USA Network to cable's top spot for three years running. Beyond its own striking success, the series helped usher in a new wave of escapist, throwback TV to challenge broadcast fare.

In the process, "Monk" snared three Emmys and four more nominations (including this year) for star Tony Shalhoub, who at first was warned against slumming on basic cable.

"I said, 'I don't think the venue is the most important thing here.' I figured why not be a bigger fish in a smaller pond and turn it into a bigger pond?" Shalhoub says.

That pond has spawned several more shows, each a hit in its own right - "Burn Notice," ''In Plain Sight," ''Psych" and new hit "Royal Pains." Those shows have put USA on a torrid pace this summer, built their own fan bases and will all return for new seasons. That's an unusual track record for a business accustomed to failing more than it succeeds.

"Psych" also is back Friday (10 p.m. ET/PT), to be replaced Oct. 23 by "White Collar," a new show teaming a con artist and an FBI agent. The network last week ordered a pilot for "Covert Affairs," a romantic drama set in the CIA. And it's developing nine more shows, including some focused on lawyers, a Hollywood stuntman and a rock star turned med student, and expects to add two of them to its lineup next year.

The common element: All focus on one or two lead characters rather than ensembles, have a lighter, often comic touch and are twists on old genres that have been mostly absent from TV.

By design, "Monk's" bumbling but effective detective harkens back to "Columbo," ''Burn Notice's" crafty renegade spy to "MacGyver," ''Royal Pains'" housecall-making doctor to "Marcus Welby, M.D."These shows "deliver the same sensibility," says NBC Universal's cable-entertainment chief, Bonnie Hammer: "Escapism that wasn't dark." Viewers "can go to sleep at 11:00 without taking out a razor blade, and with a smile on their face."

And her boss, NBC Universal TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin, says that sensibility "goes perfectly with the economy and the psyche of the country. So many people we know are living in a very difficult time period ½lcub¾hellip½rcub¾ and it's hard to find escape when the television shows you're watching are more depressing than the life you're living."

Many scripted cable series, particularly in summer, have eclipsed ratings for network series and made USA, TNT, FX and other networks new, permanent destinations for channel-surfers.

With the recession forcing cuts at big networks, "the notion that somehow cable series are lower budget or lower quality is just not true anymore," says Michael Wright, programming chief for TNT and TBS. "This is no longer an inferior art form."

"Monk'''s final 16-episode season begins as the detective investigates a murder attempt on one object of his obsession: a former child star of a "Brady Bunch"-like series played by Elizabeth Perkins ("Weeds"). And it promises to end by satisfying loyal fans with closure on two fronts: the unsolved murder of Monk's wife, Trudy, revealed in the pilot episode, which led to his nervous breakdown; and the fate of his career (he had been thrown off the police force, which came to depend on his help anyway).

"I want to leave viewers absolutely satisfied, and I want to pay back their loyalty," says creator Andy Breckman. Also look for a guest appearance by Bitty Schram, who played Monk's equally oddball assistant Sharona but left during the third season after a contract dispute.

The show's ratings have been strong and especially consistent, averaging more than 5 million viewers in recent years, and peaked only last year, its sixth season. But 125 episodes seemed long enough for the network - and for potential syndication. Costs escalate as shows age, and with USA generating other hits, it became too expensive to continue. "We're all a little sad about it, but also a little ready to move on," Shalhoub says.

What made this improbable quirky detective series, which languished at ABC for years before finally finding a home on cable, resonate with viewers? "There's something about people wanting to see this character survive and do well, overcome his problems and his obstacles," Shalhoub says, including Monk's fear of germs, crowds, even milk. For all that, his detective skills are top-notch.

Breckman, a former writer for "Saturday Night Live" and David Letterman, sees something else at work in the series' success. "In many ways it's a very retro, very '70s kind of show" that's just not seen these days on network TV. "The pace of the show is slower than most other shows, the humor is quirkier and a little more gentle. I wear this as a badge of honor."

Shalhoub says, "We've never had flashing police lights," and unlike most crime shows, "Monk" favors a low-tech approach: "I just don't like computers; they're not that interesting."

Like many TV projects, "Monk" had a long gestation: ABC developed the series in the late 1990s, but the project languished and was eventually dropped, fearing its audience would be too old for the network. But when ABC drama development executive Jackie de Crinis moved to USA in 2000, she packed the script with her, just to have something to show her new bosses, at that time dependent on wrestling and an array of cheesy action shows including "Silk Stalkings" and "Pacific Blue."

"What Tony brought to the role was not just an ability to do physical comedy," de Crinis says. "Everybody was trying to get to the joke of it rather than the gravitas of the character. He found the pathos, he found the soul of the character."

"Monk" premiered in July 2002 and was an instant success, so much so that ABC sheepishly exercised its option to air reruns of Season 1, the first time a major network aired repeats of a cable series.

And along with FX's "The Shield" and HBO's hits, which came first, "Tony was the guy who turned the tide for us and was part of the cable renaissance," says USA programming chief Jeff Wachtel. @" 'Monk' was the first show we did that crossed over into the popular culture."

"The success of that character, that series, those awards and those ratings was the springboard for all of our other shows," de Crinis says. "It's now the quintessential show for our brand."

FX is known for edgier fare ("Nip/Tuck", "Rescue Me"). TNT, which started its original programming more recently, favors darker dramas, and its top-rated "The Closer" has begun to slip behind "Burn" and "Pains."

"A lot of this stuff is more approachable and mainstream than some of their cable competitors," and has made USA a "destination brand," says Tom Weeks, a senior VP at ad-buyer affiliate Starcom Entertainment. With reruns of top-rated NCIS, "House" and "Law & Order: SVU" (and originals of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent") mixed in, "they have a really strong scripted programming platform. They're positioned very well for the future."

And "Monk" had another singular achievement, though not by design: Sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder have made the detective something of a poster child, Shalhoub says.

"All the letters we get are so supportive and thanking us for destigmatizing this disorder. And we've met homicide detectives who say you'd be surprised" by how many seek police work to "make use of fixating on the smallest details," who take evidence and "relentlessly turn it over and look at it from different perspectives. It takes someone almost not quite as sane as the rest of us."

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