TV's defective detective Adrian Monk returns to fight crimes -- and his own compulsively neat inner demons -- provided he can find a new nurse to hold his hand when he leaves his germ-free, well-vacuumed apartment.
In the "Monk" season premiere Friday, we find that our hero's long-suffering nurse, Sharona, has left him, and he must now find a new companion to act as his lifeline to the world.
Sharona came into Monk's life five years after his wife was killed in a car bombing, a tragedy that turned a quirky-yet-effective San Francisco police detective into a broken man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Monk boils his toothbrush after each use, stores his socks in plastic baggies and vacuums everything, including the ceiling.
In his three years on the USA Network, Monk (Tony Shalhoub) has only been able to shake hands when Sharona (Bitty Schram) is there to hand him an antiseptic pre-moistened towelette.
"Don't worry. He thinks everybody is dirty," Sharona tells a black person who interprets Monk's handshaking ritual as racist.
Despite his weaknesses -- actually, because of them -- Monk is San Francisco's most effective crimefighter, even though the police department kicked him off the force and uses him only as a consultant.
Those hypersensitive germ-phobic tendencies give Monk a Sherlock Holmesian ability to absorb every clue at a crime scene. He can tie a killer to a crime scene by identifying the brand of cigarettes he smokes.
Strangely, Monk is just one of many iconic -- sometimes, even heroic -- characters who are compulsively neat. On Friday, Jennifer Garner hit the big screen in "Elektra." She plays the titular superhero who, when not kicking bad-guy butt, relaxes by hand-scrubbing her floor and counting each step she takes.
On Sunday, the Golden Globes honored Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of Howard Hughes in "The Aviator." The bizarre billionaire revolutionized air transportation and the motion picture industry, when he could find time from scrubbing the dirt from under his fingernails.
In real life, Hughes spent his later years locked in hotel rooms, and by some accounts went through 12 boxes of Kleenex a day. And he's not so different from some contemporary neatniks.
Another real-life legend, soccer god David Beckham, might be more of a perfectionist off the football field. In Beckham's closet, each shirt is filed according to its color. In his refrigerator, each can of soda has to be lined up, like soldiers standing at attention.
"Everything has to match in the house," his wife, Victoria, formerly known as Posh Spice, told "People" magazine three years ago. "If there are three cans of Diet Coke he'd throw one away rather than having three because it's uneven."
So, as Monk gets ready to wipe the streets clean of grime and crime, how does he stack up against TV's other obsessively clean characters? Is he more of a control freak than Bree Van De Kamp of "Desperate Housewives"? Does he make Felix Unger look like Oscar Madison? Can he out-scrub Monica Geller Bing?
It's time to consider who is really TV's Mr. (or Ms.) Clean. Take a look at the candidates below and vote in The Wolf Files survey of TV's neatest neat freaks.
1. Bree Van De Kamp
Bree Van De Kamp, the domestic goddess of "Desperate Housewives," has the greenest lawn on Wisteria Lane. Her cupcakes are always baked to perfection. And when she plans a dinner party, she even upholsters the dining room chairs herself.
Actress Marcia Cross seems to be channeling a pre-incarcerated Martha Stewart. Of course, before the season's first episode ends, her husband announces that he wants a divorce because he can't stand "living in a deodorant commercial."
When Bree visits her estranged hubby at his hotel room, her planned evening of make-up intimacy is ruined because she can't stand to be in a room with a half-eaten burrito.
At the marriage counselor's office, her perfectionist tendencies are in full force as she compulsively fixes a loose button on her shrink's shirt while dismissing Freud.
"Oh, who cares what he thinks? I took psychology in college. We learned all about Freud. A miserable human being," Bree says. "He grew up in the late 1800s. There were no appliances back then. His mother had to do everything by hand, just backbreaking work from sunup to sundown, not to mention the countless other sacrifices she probably had to make to take care of her family.
"And what does he do?" Bree says. "He grows up and becomes famous, peddling a theory that the problems of most adults can be traced back to something awful their mother has done. She must have felt so betrayed. He saw how hard she worked. He saw what she did for him. Did he even ever think to say thank you? I doubt it."
Bree's own particular form of mothering comes out when she covers for her teenage son after he runs over a neighbor and leaves the crime scene. For Bree, it's just another household dilemma to be solved with a mop and bucket. She personally scrubs the bloodstains off the street.
If it were anyone but Bree, neighbors might think that's suspicious behavior. But they just think it's one more effort to maintain Wisteria Lane's image as the ultimate suburban paradise. Little do they know, she's just disposing of the evidence.
2. Monica Geller Bing
Monica Geller, the house mother on "Friends," is an overachiever's overachiever. When she's through cleaning the apartment, she vacuums the vacuum with a DustBuster.
Throughout the show's run, Monica lives with roommates and then husband Chandler Bing, but it was always abundantly clear that nothing in her apartment could be moved without her permission, and that includes rearranging the refrigerator magnets.
In addition, Monica let it be known that she likes the toilet paper folded in the shape of an arrow, hotel-style.
When Chandler and Joey play Monica and Rachel in a who-knows-their-friends-best trivia contest, the guys correctly identify all 11 categories that Monica uses to separate her towels, and they include guest, fancy, fancy guest and everyday.
Monica's perfectionism alternatively helps and hinders her career as a chef and initially leads her to burn through relationships, with a penchant for older men (remember Tom Selleck as Richard the ophthalmologist?) and, to her own horror, a 17-year-old boy.
In Chandler, Monica has found a counterbalancing force that mellows her freewheeling competitiveness, and evidence of this is more than abundant:
Monica: I think I'd be great in a war. I'd, like, get all the medals.
Chandler: Before or after you're executed by your own troops?
Chandler: Now, honey, I know you don't like to relinquish control ...
Monica: That's just another word for "lose."
Still, old habits die hard. Monica doesn't drink from a wine glass. She removes her mouth paint, sips and reapplies.
3. Felix Unger
Felix Unger, famously kicked out of his apartment by his wife because he's such a fussbudget, perpetually frets over roommate Oscar Madison's cigarette butts. When he gets nervous, he dusts. And when he's done shining all his shoes, he polishes the shoe trees.
TV's "Odd Couple," adapted from Neil Simon's hit play, introduced TV audiences in 1970 to a high-functioning New York professional who drives everyone crazy by compulsively cleaning.
Perhaps something went wrong when Felix was young. Oscar is horrified when he learns that his roommate was potty-trained at five months -- and at six months, he was "helping others."
If there's even a speck of dust, Felix has an allergy attack. And to clear his sinuses, he makes a strange honking sound. "Everyone thinks I'm a hypochondriac," Felix says. "And it makes me sick."
Yet Felix is a successful photographer (portraits are his specialty), and he puts his obsessions to positive effect to occasionally bail his sloppy pal out of trouble. When Oscar gets audited, Felix finds Oscar's canceled alimony checks under his bed -- in a box marked "Gambling Losses."
Indeed, Felix had redeeming qualities. When the show ended its five-year run, he remarried ex-wife Gloria and moved home.
Put Ernie in a bathtub with a rubber ducky and he's in heaven. But his "Sesame Street" roommate Bert has always been emotionally pinched. Bert's conical little felt head nearly explodes when he complains about his messy pal eating cookies in bed -- and they don't even share a bed.
Crumbs scattered all over the apartment might explain why Bert's famously bushy unibrow is forever furrowed in boiling anger.
Bert's neat streak -- and a certain stereotype about men with a penchant for tidiness -- might explain the persistent rumor that the Muppet duo are lovers.
Speculation about Ernie and Bert's supposed love affair became so widespread that the Children's Television Workshop felt obliged to set the record straight in a 1993 statement:
"Bert and Ernie, who've been on 'Sesame Street' for 25 years, do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans. Like all the Muppets created for 'Sesame Street,' they were designed to help educate preschoolers. Bert and Ernie are characters who help demonstrate to children that despite their differences, they can be good friends."
Monk returns to action this season still obsessed with his wife's murder -- the only crime he's never been able to solve. Last season, he learned a few clues about her death, so perhaps he's closer to regaining his mental balance -- and his badge.
Until then, his list of phobias, in order of severity, goes as follows: germs, needles, milk, death, snakes, mushrooms, heights, crowds and elevators. But as Sharona said last season, "We're working on milk."
Underpinning most of Monk's fears is the need for order and cleanliness. He refuses to sit when he's invited to a picnic. "I can't," he says. "Animals do things on the ground. Terrible, terrible things."
But it's the love of his late wife Trudy that gives Monk the strength to face the world.
Why go on? asks a baseball player who loses his wife in one episode. "To be the man she fell in love with," Monk says.
In the meantime, Monk muddles through, vacuuming and re-vacuuming until all the lines of his carpet are in a row, and investigating the murders nobody else can solve.
Perhaps it's good sometimes to be hyper-neurotic. As Monk often says, "It's a blessing ... and a curse."
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays.