Spoiler alert: Contains details about “Monk.’’
Lately I’ve been rewatching “Monk,” starring comic genius Tony Shalhoub (”Wings,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) as Adrian Monk, an obsessive-compulsive investigator of elaborate homicides in and around San Francisco.
Monk’s overarching goal throughout the eight seasons of the series was to solve the murder of his beloved wife, Trudy.
Seeing “Monk” again has reminded me what a vital contributor Bitty Schram was to the tone of the series — and what an enduring shame it is that she disappeared from “Monk” midway through its third season.
This happens on television a fair amount, of course. TV history is replete with examples of actors who left — or were pushed out of — long-running series and subsequently had trouble regaining those career heights again. An actor will leave a show or be released due to disputes over money, or their restlessness and desire to try new roles, or a host of other reasons. Think Shelley Long and “Cheers,” say, or David Caruso and “NYPD Blue.”
On “Monk,’’ which ran on the USA Network from 2002-09 and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Schram played the sardonic, wised-up Sharona Fleming, Monk’s nurse and personal assistant.
A tough-talking but tender-hearted native of New Jersey, Sharona in essence functioned as a kind of big sister to Monk, chiding him or cajoling him as needed while he untangled murder mysteries that only he could untangle. Possessed of a very big personality and an implacable will, Sharona was utterly fearless and always there for Monk in a pinch — and he was often in a pinch one way or another. Schram made the screen pop in virtually every scene she was in.
But midway through the third season, Schram was suddenly gone from the show. Her departure reportedly stemmed from a contract dispute, though the network claimed at the time the makers of “Monk” had “decided to go in a different creative direction with some of its characters.’’
Replacing Schram as Monk’s assistant was Traylord Howard, playing Natalie Teeger. Howard was appealing and likable, no question. The vibe between Natalie and the often-maddening Monk was that of an attentive and solicitous niece to an eccentric uncle. But Natalie was no Sharona.
Happily, “Monk” brought Schram back for an episode in the show’s eighth and final season. Almost immediately, there were tensions between Sharona and Natalie. But they eventually managed to set aside their differences, recognizing that their mutual devotion to Monk gave them one big thing in common. (They were also both single mothers during the time they worked for Monk.)
On Monk’s regular visit to Trudy’s grave, both of them accompanied him. In a lovely coda at the end of the visit, Sharona and Natalie linked arms with Monk, one on either side, as they left the gravesite, protective to the end.