Some irate Monk fans vowed to wash their hands of USA Network's quirky germaphobic-sleuth series when it was announced that Bitty Schram would not return as Sharona for the second half of the season. The decision to split was apparently mutual. Schram, who played the feisty Watson to Tony Shalhoub's Holmes, declined to be interviewed; manager Scott Zimmerman said her departure was "too painful and she still had friends" on the set.

Zimmerman confirmed Monk executive producer David Hoberman's claim that the split was due to "creative differences," contractual issues (usually code for wanting more money) and Schram's desire to do feature films.

Sources close to the show say Schram, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role last year, was more ditz than diva but had become more difficult this year, causing "strain" on the set and delaying production with "sick-outs."

When the show returns January 21, new cast member Traylor Howard (Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place) plays Natalie, a widow and single mom who teams up with Monk. Howard says she admires Schram's work but isn't nervous about replacing her, hoping "the audience will rediscover Monk's quirks" through Natalie's puzzled eyes.

Will Sharonaphiles tune in? We imagine the producers emulating their neurotic hero: crossing their fingers and avoiding sidewalk cracks while they wait and see.