June 23, 2003 12:00 PM

USA (Fridays, 10 p.m. ET)

Critic’s Choice

As I enjoyed this mystery series’ second-season premiere (airing June 20), I recalled the satisfying feeling of watching Columbo in its prime.

Peter Falk’s character had the rumpled raincoat, old-shoe modesty and fumbling manner. The buttoned-up Adrian Monk, played to perfection by Tony Shalhoub, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. In both cases the detective’s less than commanding presence tends to make the villains overconfident. There’s extra pleasure in seeing evildoers humbled by a guy who doesn’t look cool.

In the season’s first episode, Monk knows in his bones that a smug prep-school teacher (guest star Andrew McCarthy) murdered a female colleague, despite the willingness of the police captain (Ted Levine) and his toady lieutenant (Jason Gray-Stanford) to write off the death as a suicide. “Nobody’s smarter than you,” Monk’s assistant (Bitty Schram) assures him, but the sleuth is as vulnerable as he is brilliant. Straitjacketed by his psychological condition, he finds it impossible to finish printing his name on a classroom blackboard until each letter is flawlessly formed. You laugh at his plight, but never without empathy. And you root for him to get things exactly right.

BOTTOM LINE: Worth obsessing over

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