When Traylor Howard replaced Bitty Schram on Monk, fans had fits. "We knew devotees would be [upset]," says USA Network executive vice president Jeff Wachtel. "But we also knew Traylor could win them over."

Half a season later, that hasn't happened. "I hate her!" one wrote on Monk's message board. "She brings nothing to the show," ranted another. But ratings remain the same for

Monk's Schramless episodes (about 3.4 million viewers), so it looks like Howard's here to stay.

Producers tapped her to play Monk's new girl Friday because she and star Tony Shalhoub clicked during her audition. That chemistry may build next season as writers toy with the idea of a Monk-Natalie romance. Until then, Howard will keep fighting to win fans. "I know some people are still resistant," she concedes. "People don't like change. God knows, I hate it! I think it is sweet [that they're] protective of Monk, that they take it personally and are invested in him. Sharona protected him in a way [they're more] accustomed to. Some people are thrown by [our new dynamic]."

The actress, who also costars in Son of the Mask, says she's already made a few converts among Monk's aficionados. "The guy at the grocery store said, 'Are you the new girl? I didn't think I would like you, but I do.'

"Luckily, no one has come up and yelled at me," Howard adds with a laugh. "There are die-hard Sharona fans who are not going to budge for a while or ever. Some people love the new character; some are trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. But it will take a while."