While not quite "Mr Monk and the Candidate", "Mr Monk and the Psychic", "Mr Monk Goes to the Asylum" and "Mr Monk and the Other Woman", "Mr Monk and the Red-Headed Stranger" is along with "Mr Monk Meets Dale the Whale" and those four as among the best episodes of a very solid and remarkably well-settled Season 1. A season where even the weakest episode, "Mr Monk and the Earthquake", is still enjoyable. There is very little wrong with "Mr Monk and the Red-Headed Stranger", other than the suspect being obvious early and especially when a scene confirmed my suspicions that their circumstances were not what they seemed. It was also rather clear off the bat of Willie being framed.
On the other hand, one of the best things about 'Monk' has always been the acting of Tony Shalhoub in the title role. It was essential for him to work and be the glue of the show, and Shalhoub not only is that but also at his very best he IS the show. Have always loved the balance of the humour, which is often hilarious, and pathos, which is sincere and touching. It is remarkable here that right from the first episode to when the show ended that one likes him straight away, even with his quirks and deficiencies that could easily have been overplayed, and also that he is better developed than most titular characters of other shows at this particular stage. Who can't help love Monk's brilliant mind too?
He is very well supported by a sharp and no-nonsense but also sympathetic Bitty Schram, whose Sharona makes for a worthy and entertaining partner for Monk's sleuthing and somebody with a maternal side. There is always a debate at who's better between Sharona and Natalie, personally like both in their own way and consider them both attractive though as of now leaning towards Natalie as the better acted and more attentive of the two. The two are so enjoyable together and the best detective duo of any show in recent years from personal opinion.
Also by a very amusing, and sometimes even funnier than that, Ted Levine, what a difference from his Buffalo Bill in 'The Silence of the Lambs'. Yes, even with Stottlemeyer having his arm in a cast. He and Shalhoub have some wonderful scenes together and also some equally great moments with Jason Gray-Stanford's Disher. Gray-Stanford is growing in confidence and comic-timing with every episode.
It's not just the cast though. Another star is the writing, which is also essential to whether the show would be successful or not and succeed it does here. The mix of hilarious wry humour, lovable quirkiness and tender easy-to-relate-to drama is delicately done but extremely deft. The character moments are such a joy with the principal cast are always. The real treat was Monk with Willie Nelson (in one of his better acting endeavours, and charming fun playing himself), and we learn more about Monk and from the trivia here learn something new about Shalhoub. Yes, the clarinet is a wonderful instrument and some great music has been written for it like Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, the Cat's music in Prokoviev's 'Peter and the Wolf' and the Brahms Quintet.
The story, despite the obviousness of the killer (not the first time on the show and not the last), is compelling, both as a comedy and a mystery with very enjoyable deductions and how Monk came to the solution, which has always been part of the charm of the show.
Visually, the episode is shot in a slick and stylish way, and the music is both understated and quirky. Much prefer the jazzy Season 1 theme tune to the later "It's a Jungle Out There", which always struck me before as one of my least favourite assets of 'Monk' but has since grown on me, which should have been kept. It's all very capably directed.
Overall, great episode and one of the better ones of the season. 9/10 Bethany Cox