Traylor Howard, Tony Shalhoub, Ted Levine and Scott Glenn, <EM>Monk</EM> Traylor Howard, Tony Shalhoub, Ted Levine and Scott Glenn, Monk

Well, he's no Jack Bauer. 24's tough-guy hero can withstand electrodes, knives and other unpleasant instruments of torture. But the obsessive-compulsive Adrian Monk? The mess of getting fingerprinted pretty much strains his limits.

But who says nice guys finish last? USA Network's Monk (tonight at 9 pm/ET) has topped the cable charts in recent weeks, and the two-part season finale, with Monk arrested and prison-bound on false murder charges, demonstrates why. A tribute to The Fugitive that includes a wrongful accusation, a relentless lawman's pursuit and — in a nod to that fabled, elusive one-armed man — a six-fingered killer, the finale combines the comedy and mystery that keeps Monk pulling in viewers after six seasons.

"In terms of the psychological and physical danger Monk's in," star Tony Shalhoub says, "these two episodes have some of the highest stakes that we've explored." Viewers, he says, might find it "kind of shocking" that the gentle, neurotic character flirts with "vigilante justice" to solve the long-ago murder of his wife, Trudy.

"He's a little more reckless, because for him the only thing that has real meaning in his life is figuring out [who's behind Trudy's murder]. It's a real moment of truth."

Not that the murder will necessarily be solved this season, admits Andy Breckman, the former Saturday Night Live writer who created Monk. "The ball is going to be moved downfield a few yards." The surprising return of one of Monk's most memorable nemeses hints at future complications. "We did ratchet up the challenges that Monk faces," Breckman says. "We thought it would be great to have him stumbling through the woods with shackles on, trying to survive on his own."

Rough stuff for a fussbudget who can only get through an ordinary day with the help of his assistant Natalie (Traylor Howard) and an endless supply of Handi Wipes. Now he's plunged into the real, dirty world, trying to elude a ruthless sheriff, played by Scott Glenn.

"It was easy to think of Scott," Breckman says. "He's cornered the market in authority figures with a dark side."

Adds Glenn, "I like the show. It's smart and off-kilter, funny and oddly sweet — and I get to play Tommy Lee Jones to Tony's Harrison Ford."

Glenn found his costar nothing short of heroic. "What struck me watching Tony is how unbelievably exhausting it is to have the whole show ride on your performance. He is amazing."

Shalhoub's deft three-time Emmy-winning performance is the all-too-obvious answer to the mystery of the show's enduring popularity. In fact, NBC has enough faith in the USA hit (not to mention plenty of strike-induced holes in its prime-time schedule) that the network will begin airing Monk episodes (paired with another popular USA show, Psych) April 6. Breckman expects his family-friendly cable series won't require any content cuts for the move. "We decided to let other shows be edgy," he says. "We like to say we're so square, we're hip."

Check out Monk clips in our Online Video Guide.

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