MONK. “Mr. Monk and the 12th Man.” Season 2, episode 9 (22nd of 125). First broadcast: August 22, 2003. Cast: Tony Shalhoub (Adrian Monk), Bitty Schram (Sharona Fleming), Jason Gray-Stanford (Lieutenant Randy Disher), Ted Levine (Captain Stottlemeyer), Jerry Levine (Kenny Shale), Ed Marinaro (Stewart Babcock), Billy Gardell (Ian Agnew), Lauren Tom (Mrs. Ling), David Figlioli (Tommy Zimm), Jimmy Shubert (Frank Pulaski), Deborah Zoe (Lisa Babcock). Writing staff: Andy Breckman (creator), Michael Angeli (writer), David Breckman (executive story editor), Daniel Dratch (story editor), Hy Conrad (staff writer). Director: Michael Zinberg.

   There have already been nine apparently unrelated murders in the San Francisco Bay area by the time a toll booth attendant is brutally dragged to death along 7/10ths of a mile of paved highway behind a sports car. The police, as is often the case in these shows, don’t have a clue, since there is no known connection among the victims. Captain Stottlemeyer talks with Monk, the department’s unofficial consultant:

    “Any connection?” asks Monk.

    “No, no connections at all. I mean, four have been men, five women. All different ages—Latino, black, white.”

    “And the M.O.s?”

    “All different. There’s been a couple of shootings—all different weapons, a hit-and-run, a drowning, an electrocution. It’s . . . it’s like a full moon every night.”

    “And you’re sure,” says Monk, “that the cases have absolutely nothing in common?”

    “Well, they have one thing in common, Monk: we can’t solve them. I swear, there’s something in the water here.”

    … but the water, unfortunately, isn’t to blame.

   According to Monk, the more he thinks about it the more he sees how all of the victims do have one thing in common: “Captain, this is a very diverse group,” one that’s “too diverse.” “I’m talking statistics,” he says. “You’d have to work hard, really hard, to find a group this different.” Finding a common denominator in a series of crimes can be one of the first steps in discovering a hidden motive, and once you know the motive you’re well on your way to finding the killer(s) . . .

   Normally we’re not too fond of serial killer stories, but this one is, thankfully, low on grue and high on plot. As in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, understanding the “why” is essential to arriving at the “who,” and this episode of Monk is a worthy successor to Dame Agatha’s classic story (there’s even an echo of it in “12th Man,” a murder in a darkened theater).

   A few years ago Curt Evans had a Mystery*File article about Seasons 1-4 of Monk (here), in which he wrote: “Season two, on the other hand, seems to me nearly flawless. The ingenuity of the mystery plots often is quite remarkable, in my view, for forty-five minute television shows.”

   We agree; the cleverness of the second season shows (and “12th Man” is one of them) was so good that the series never came as close to being that smart again. “Mr. Monk and the Missing Granny” earns high marks for cleverly obscuring the motive; “Mr. Monk Goes to the Circus” excels at exploding the impossible alibi; and “Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect” takes exploding impossible alibis to stratospheric heights (those ketchup bottles—brilliant!)

   Indeed, for a long time we regarded “Sleeping Suspect” as the acme of Monk, but watching it again we’ve noticed how some of the events are throwaways not closely relating to the central story line, vignettes which are in there more for character development than driving the plot — and, we hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with that, if done in moderation.

   The principal virtue of “12th Man,” on the other hand, is how everything — and we mean EVERYTHING — dovetails with the plot. Such apparently irrelevant elements as Sharona’s hot and heavy romance with a mayoral candidate, a man with a pipe in his head, a finger in a freezer, the outcome of a court case, and Mrs. Ling’s headaches with Monk’s dry cleaning actually serve the plot as well as being comic moments in their own right. Nothing in “12th Man” is wasted; it all fits, which is something so few dramatic mystery presentations can boast.

   Recognizing how well the various plot elements meshed (or so we’d like to imagine), the MWA nominated “12th Man” for a Major Award (as well as another Monk episode), putting us in agreement with them, for once; even so, it lost. (The winner, as it turned out, was an installment of The Practice. Nice going, MWA!)