It's not that Adrian Monk solves murder mysteries, it's the way he does it. The extremely weird way.

The extremely weird way that caught on with so many TV viewers during the show's first season — viewers who have been inquiring about a second season for months. It's here at last, with a new episode airing tonight at 8 on the USA cable network.

Which isn't surprising, given that "Monk" may be the strangest hero in television history. A man suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and innumerable phobias, his ticks make the big, blue, cartoon Tick look teeny in comparison.

Tonight, Monk (Tony Shalhoub) is determined to solve a murder that the police won't even acknowledge is a murder. An apparent suicide at a private school isn't, and Monk takes a job as a substitute teacher at the school to keep an eye on his prime suspect, a popular teacher (Andrew McCarthy). And some of the scenes of the phobic detective interacting with the students and faculty are priceless. When you've got OCD, just writing your name on the blackboard turns into an event.

And, as always, the relationship between Monk and his nurse/girl Friday Sharona (Bitty Schram) is sort of a comedy version of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, with a bit of Nick and Nora from "The Thin Man" thrown in.

For the most part, the mysteries in "Monk" are OK but nothing special. The same plots could have played out on "Murder, She Wrote" or "Columbo." What makes the show stand out, however, is the lead character, perfectly played by Shalhoub. He makes the character funny without making him an object of derision. And, to give the writers their due, they always manage to make his OCD and phobias a part of how he ultimately solves the crime.

If this episode is an indicator, the second season of "Monk" isn't going into a sophomore slump. The biggest difference might have you humming along — a new theme song from Oscar-winner Randy Newman.

TUBE NOTES: Turns out the fifth season of "The Sopranos" won't be the last. HBO has announced a sixth season.

Don't start counting the days yet, however. The 13-episode fifth season won't begin airing until March. And production on the sixth season, which will consist of only 10 episodes, won't get going until sometime in 2005.

• As expected, CBS has ordered 13 episodes of "Becker" as a midseason replacement show. The network isn't admitting this, but the pickup of the seemingly canceled Ted Danson series no doubt has something to do with the fact that it's produced by Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, which also owns CBS. And producing more episodes makes "Becker" more valuable to Paramount (and CBS and Viacom) in syndication.

• I don't know who's more nuts — Spike Lee for thinking he owns the name "Spike" and, thus, suing to prevent Viacom from renaming TNN as Spike TV, or the judge who granted him an injunction.

That judge did, at least, order Lee to post a $500,000 bond for any losses incurred by Viacom should Spike be unable to spike Spike TV in the end. And, according to legal papers filed by the media conglomerate, it lost $16.8 million in the first week alone.

Gee, wouldn't it be too bad if Lee's bank account became the opposite of his enormous ego?


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