My television-watching habits have really waned in recent years. I'm not sure I watch anything every week anymore, although I try to keep up with "Alias" and "24."

Together, my wife and I enjoy "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Gilmore Girls" and "CSI" (in Las Vegas, not Miami). And Ch. 7's reruns of the Britcom "As Time Goes By" sure beat the 10 o'clock news most nights.

When "Raymond," "Gilmore" and "CSI" are in reruns, however, our favorite becomes "Monk," which has a short-season run each summer on the USA cable channel.

I've written about "Monk" before, but with the release of the first season on DVD, it's worth revisiting. Seeing the show in widescreen, without ads — and without all those infuriating USA promo spots that pop up and swirl around at the bottom of the screen after each commercial break — has been great fun.

For the uninitiated, "Monk" is sort of "Columbo" with more tics.

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) is a brilliant detective who notices things no one else sees, a la Sherlock Holmes, and he always solves the crime. But he's also been kicked off the San Francisco police force because — since the car-bomb death of his wife several years earlier — he's become obsessive-compulsive in the extreme. (His wife's murder is the one case he can't seem to solve, though each season he inches a bit closer.)

Regulars on the show include his wisecracking nurse/companion Sharona (Bitty Schram), who cares about Monk, although he drives her crazy; Capt. Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine), who uses Monk on a free-lance basis to solve crimes, though he also drives him crazy; and Lt. Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford), Stottlemeyer's bumbling assistant. Occasional regulars include Monk's psychiatrist (Stanley Kamel) and Sharona's young son (Kane Ritchotte).

Much of each show focuses on the give-and-take between Monk and Sharona, as she tries to keep him on track so he can solve the crime, earn some money to pay her salary and eventually get back on the force. And Schram and Shalhoub make an endearing team.

And that's what really makes it work; the focus is more on the characters than the crime.

Having an obsessive-compulsive character as the lead in an hourlong comedy/drama may sound like it has potential for disaster. The character could come off as merely annoying — or even offensive. But as played by the great character actor Tony Shalhoub, Monk is a wonderfully sympathetic character; we feel for him, even while we're laughing at his over-the-top reactions to everyday situations.

Shalhoub has been, for more than 15 years, one of those actors whose face is familiar but you can't quite place him. That's because he's played a wide variety of personalities and professions and ethnic "types"; cabbies, cops , crooks, doctors . . . and he's given each a unique spin.

He's managed to stand out in small roles in bad movies ("The Siege," "Life or Something Like It") and in good movies ("Men in Black," "A Civil Action"), and he had a wonderful lead role in "Big Night," a delightful little film in which he and Stanley Tucci play bickering Italian brothers trying to succeed with a restaurant in the 1950s.

But "Monk" has given him a showcase like no other.

Shalhoub is perfect as the tortured "defective detective" who uses a disinfectant-wipe every time he shakes hands or touches . . . well, virtually anything.

The third season's first episode, which aired a couple of weeks ago, offers a terrific example of how the writers come up with simple situations that throw Monk into turmoil but also allow us to identify with him: Monk in Manhattan. The crowds, the noise, the confusion. Perfect.

And in the DVD set, Monk at a carnival, Monk on an airplane. . . . More perfection.

My only complaints are that occasionally the show gets too silly (witness this season's second episode about a chimp framed for murder) and far too often, too many characters (especially Sharona) say "Oh, my God" over and over, which is really noticeable when watching several episodes back-to-back. Note to writers: Surely there is another way for characters to express surprise or shock once in a while.

"Monk: The Complete First Season" (Universal, 2002, not rated, $59.98, four discs). Extras: widescreen, 13 episodes (including the feature-length pilot), making-of featurettes, language and subtitle options (English, Spanish, French), chapters, and on the outside of the box, an anti-bacterial hand-gel packet.

E-mail: hicks[email protected]