If You Paid Attention You’d Be Worried, Too: Monk, Psych, and the Attention Economy

In the 2000s, we watched Monk. Every night I sat down with a glass of Ocean Spray and enjoyed my 43 TiVoed minutes of Adrian with the rest of the family; my favorite episode was the one where Monk knew who did it and why, but had to figure out how (he laid her body on the long tine of the clock tower at quarter past, then waited for the corpse to drop as the second hand lowered). It was a smart show, but it was funny, which was why we all liked it, my mom especially, because it reminded her of her father, who lived out his life with undiagnosed OCD (he once famously detected my mother had thrown a party from a single bottle cap left on the lip of the electrical box).

In 2020, I flip through Amazon Prime Video, searching for something low-stakes that I can walk away from when I am done eating my dinner in fifteen minutes. I have marketing work to do, content to write; I live with my sister, who works in marketing too. My grandfather died a good death two years ago, surrounded by his family. Tony Shalhoub is a supporting character on Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I enjoy as a period piece but do not find funny. After scrolling for a while, I come across another old 2000s favorite: Psych. For some reason, I have always associated Monk with Psych, though Monk is about an uptight police consultant and Psych follows a freewheeling “psychic” detective. I consider tweeting: Pitch for the show Psych—“what if Monk was hot?”

But I don’t, because the comparison isn’t exact when I think it through. Shawn Spencer is not quite hot Monk. So why do I pair the shows so clearly? Apart from the obvious connection that they are both popular crime shows that aired around the same time on USA, though I sense there is more. A hypothesis blooms while plodding forward on my sister’s Peloton. I open my Macbook for some googling.


I want to suggest that Monk and Psych are actually quite similar with respect to their investment in attention, a growing topic of discussion in the 2000s. I argue that the rise of attention disorder diagnoses (namely attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and its resulting panic was deeply inflected by the rise of the personal technology-enabled digital attention economy. Monk and Psych express a similar twofold anxiety over disordered attention in a new age of information overload: on the one hand, this idea that an excess of or improperly focused attention can be wielded as a superhuman gift—marking those with attention disorders as lauded others, and on the other hand, still the mark of “other”—the idea that people with attention disorders are fundamentally incapable of paying attention to the right things, rendering them reproductive duds in the attention economy.

I also want to discuss, briefly, the deep irony that both of the shows portray in yoking their protagonists’ societal legitimacy to carceral punishment, the very system that has historically attempted to remove people like Adrian Monk and Shawn Spencer from society. Both TV shows simultaneously work to glorify people with attention disorders as above the law by portraying them as protagonists who regularly best the police, and intimate that their hero status is ultimately determined by the state, who can, at whim, decide whether or not these vigilantes are good or bad actors. However, this will not be an indictment of Monk and Psych for lacking progressive politics with respect to mental disorders or prison abolition, which would be silly to expect from 2000s crime shows with wide target demos. Rather, I want to close read both shows’ pilot episodes against the early twenty-first century rise of attention panic: cultural worry over increased attention disorders in an age where attention was increasingly synonymous with money.


I.

Adrian Monk has OCD. Of course, Monk never quite says this. When a cop calls Monk “crazy,” Monk’s private nurse-cum-sidekick, Sharona, clarifies that he isn’t, then gives the clinical definition of OCD with an explanation of its origin: Adrian has an anxiety disorder that developed after his wife Trudy was murdered four years ago by car bomb. The title assembles over a shot of Monk similarly assembling himself in the mirror, Trudy’s face framed on the counter.

In 1997, just five years before Monk premiered, OCD specialist Eric Hollander declared obsessive-compulsive disorder a “hidden epidemic.” Recent epidemiology studies had discovered that the prevalence of OCD was higher than predicted. The Global Burden of Disease studies had just bumped OCD up to 20th place on the list of disabilities most likely to shorten one’s lifespan.


That same year, Michael H. Goldhaber published a draft of his conference presentation: “The Attention Economy.” This is the abstract:

“If the Web and the Net can be viewed as spaces in which we will increasingly live our lives, the economic laws we will live under have to be natural to this new space. These laws turn out to be quite different from what the old economics teaches, or what rubrics such as ‘the information age’ suggest. What counts most is what is most scarce now, namely attention. The attention economy brings with it its own kind of wealth… Success will come to those who best accommodate to this new reality.”

Four years later, consultants-turned-academics Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck published the book, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, which popularized Goldhaber’s concept from a business perspective. What all three authors don’t say, but demonstrate in their thinking, is the logic that gives rise to the attention economy. The new global digital world is not just a bottomless trove of information, it is a platform that constantly records which information is getting traffic. The underlying anxiety of the attention economy is not the scarcity of attention, but the fact that there are now cold metrics to track this scarcity, producing a precise way to measure human attention in dollars, and, as a result, infinitely more granular advertising metrics to hit. There has always been too much information and our attention has always been scarce; the recent transfer of the marketplace from IRL to digital has just newly allowed companies to record and monetize this phenomenon.

Davenport and Beck’s advice in The Attention Economy is to understand and manage your attention, as to more mindfully “pay” attention to the world around you. In 2020, this idea is still on the lips of American business gurus, including respected behavioral design expert Nir Eyal in his 2019 book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Eyal advertises his book on his website: “Research shows the ability to stay focused is a competitive advantage, in work and in life.” In the context of the attention economy (enabled by the proliferation of digital information), controlling your attention is a superpower, a “competitive advantage” akin to “[choosing] your life” that renders you capable of monetizing your time, rather than leaving you vulnerable to advertisements that will monetize your attention for themselves.


In the opening scene of Monk’s pilot, when Monk cannot stop thinking about his stove while inspecting a murder, Sharona pulls him aside for some exposition, explaining that the San Francisco Police Department thinks he’s nuts and he won’t get reinstated unless he cuts it out with the OCD symptoms. “Now, pull your twisted self together, concentrate, and be brilliant.” They both smile, hysterically. “You’re brilliant,” she repeats. This is exposition, too, explaining Monk’s brilliance is a matter of concentration, of pulling his “twisted self together” to focus on the problem at hand. Immediately following her pep talk, Monk gives the police a specific profile of the perp: a 6’3” ex-Green Beret who smokes Newports, now, a mercenary killer. Monk’s focus shifts back to his stove and he flees the crime scene early. When he leaves, a policeman asks, “So that’s the famous Adrian Monk?” Another replies, “Yeah, a living legend.” A third cop jokes, “If you call that living.” 

When Monk became a hit show in the early 2000s, some viewers could immediately read Monk’s diagnosis, but people unfamiliar with OCD could read Monk like the cop: “crazy.” And the show allowed for both readings, which was what made it smart and funny: it was funny because you could see how everyone in San Francisco saw Monk as crazy, but smart because you understood that Monk’s behavior had a deep internal logic—the logic of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Still, it’s hard to tell how many people understood Monk’s diagnosis when the show aired in 2002.


Before the ‘70s, the medical community considered OCD to be a rare and incurable disorder. The condition crops up most commonly in early literature as “scrupulosity”— an iteration of OCD involving religious fixations, and thought to describe both Martin Luther and John Bunyan. OCD is first named “pathetic insanity” in post-Enlightenment texts, and understood as a kind of melancholy. Famous doctor and madness specialist, Thomas Arnold, defined pathetic insanity in 1782: “some one Passion is in full, and complete possession of the mind; triumphs in the slavery, or desolation of reason.”1 Arnold isn’t that far off for an eighteenth-century doctor, if we generously replace “Passion” with “frontostriatal system” and “mind” with “complex behaviors, such as high order reasoning and motor and cognitive functions.”2 The second clause I can’t save, as modern research shows that obsessions and compulsions do not result in the slavery or death of reason, but are rather the result of excessive reason, of hyperactivity in the reasoning part of the brain (re: Monk might seem “crazy”—like his reason is dead, but he is actually just overly-logical—his reason is whirring so fast he sees rules everywhere that he must follow or face debilitating emotional distress).

“Pathetic insanity” gets renamed “monomania.” “Monomania” spends some time as folie de doute, or “doubting disease,” before late-eighteenth-century French psychologists finally settle on “obsessive-compulsive disorder.”3 Each prior name signals a different facet of the disorder: “pathetic insanity” capturing the emotional, whole-bodied anxiety produced by OCD; “monomania” capturing the singular, encapsulating nature of OCD’s obsessive fixations; “doubting disease” capturing the checking, the constant uncertainty that might prove useful in detective work.


As far as I can tell, this idea was not particularly salient to Monk’s conception. Andy Breckman wrote for Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman before creating Monk, which he originally pitched as Columbo meets Seinfeld: a family friendly cop show during a time when sexy, violent cop dramas like Law & Order were all the rage.4 Monk would be the opposite of SVU; Monk would be so clean, so literally clean, that it would be funny. Whereas if Monk aired today, it would be advertised to death as a meaningful representation of OCD, in 2002, OCD was just a narrative solution to the problem of making crime family-friendly.

Breckman might not have thought too carefully about Adrian Monk as a representative of a highly stigmatized mental illness, but the people marketing Monk did, opting for the tagline, “Obsessive. Compulsive. Detective.” However, the show was no early convert of identity politics—Monk was no The Good Doctor: a genre show featuring some savant protagonist with a political message. Monk was a crime show with a comedic twist, and that twist happened to be OCD. Reviews for the pilot signaled the diagnosis but never named it outright: for The New York Times, Anita Gates described Monk as possessing “a plethora of obsessive-compulsive symptoms” in an article titled, “An Obsessive Detective With Compulsive Traits.” The Washington Post’s Tom Shales described Monk as “enticingly screwy” but couched “obsessive-compulsive” in quotes, making sure to distance it as the language of USA’s marketing team.

In these reviews, Adrian Monk’s OCD is not a question of representation but a question of acting ability; writers agreed that Tony Shalhoub brought the right level of sensitivity to the role. Bruce Fretts praised Shalhoub in an Entertainment Weekly review: “He doesn’t overplay Monk’s OCD symptoms for cheap laughs; instead, he subtly conveys the quiet misery of a man who’s trapped in vicious cycles of irrational behavior.” The implication is that Monk is high humor because it is depressing, too. The joke of Monk is not the ongoing physical comedy bit of Monk’s mental illness, but the irony that it all looks like comedy despite the fact that Monk is absolutely miserable. One of the standout gaffes of the pilot occurs after Monk drops his keychain in the casket during a funeral service. When he attempts to rescue it from an upper-level pew with a line of floss knotted round a paperclip, Sharona chides him: “You’re going straight to hell.” Monk responds, “I am in hell.”


In 1997, the year OCD was declared a “hidden epidemic,” As Good As It Gets was released: a film starring Jack Nicholson as a romance writer with OCD, and, as Paul Cefalu points out in his article, “What’s So Funny About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Anyways?”—a comedy. Cefalu argues that media representation of OCD exploded in the fifteen or so years prior to his 2009 essay, though this new bout of obsessive-compulsive stories differs greatly from past representations in genre: comedy, as opposed to tragedy. Cefalu is right that an obsessive-compulsive life is rife with the kind of irony television writers dream about—both physically and narratively comedic (particularly given “the futility of the act,” or, the reality that performing ritual compulsions often increases a person’s stress-level), but importantly, that irony only operates for audiences who understand the pathology of OCD, and that understanding was, historically-speaking, quite recent.

Innovations in cognitive therapy throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s revolutionized public understanding of OCD. Clinical psychologist Paul Salkovskis famously argued that OCD treatment needed a new approach in 1985. Intrusive thoughts could not be conceptualized as a willful or compulsive “behavior.” Rather, they were “cognitive stimuli” that everyone experienced to some extent, people with OCD just felt excessively guilty about possessing them, so every time a terrible thought opened in their mind they punished themselves with a flood of negative self-assessments. Salkovskis believed that OCD treatment need not prevent the uncontrollable cognitive stimuli of unwanted thoughts; it needed to focus on preventing the excessive punishment that followed these thoughts. While Salkovskis has since updated his approach to OCD treatment, this underlying idea has proven a useful throughline. Intrusive thoughts are a universal experience,5 but OCD causes a person to pay these intrusions too much attention.

By 1998, ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention, a kind of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) was proven clinically effective, reducing OCD symptoms by an average of over 50-60%. The same psychologist who published these studies would write in 2006, “Within the span of about 20 years, the prognosis for individuals with OCD has changed from poor to very good as a result of the development of ERP.” Three years later, Paul Cefalu would note that, within the same time frame, the prognosis for individuals with OCD had changed from tragic to comedic. The success of ERP introduced the idea that exposure could solve anxiety, despite significant dropout rates in ERP studies that suggested when ERP did not work, it really did not work, and only served to re-traumatize people at their most psychically vulnerable.6 But the idea was intoxicatingly simple for people who did not suffer OCD, and so it stuck. Clinical anxiety could be managed merely by manning up and exposing oneself to the anxiety-producing stressor—this manageable picture of OCD undoubtedly led to a manageable media portrait of OCD. In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson cures himself of OCD by gradual exposure to his irrational fears. Taking care of his neighbor’s dog leads to eating at the diner without bringing his own utensils leads to scoring a date with the waitress, happily ever after, so on and so forth. When OCD became “curable,” it became funny.


OCD is not an attention disorder. It’s currently classified as an anxiety disorder (though some experts believe it deserves its own spectrum).7 An important part of an OCD diagnosis is the crippling anxiety and inhibitive guilt that result from obsessions and compulsions, and I don’t mean to erase that in considering OCD from the perspective of attention. I do want to suggest that, after the success of ERP therapy changed public perception of OCD such that its crippling anxiety seemed manageable via willpower, the needle on OCD shifted, ushering in media representations of OCD that could afford to view the disorder as a matter of misplaced attention. At least, this is the case with the famous Adrian Monk.

In the new attention economy of 2002 San Francisco, ex-detective Adrian Monk is, in many ways, a rich man. Only Monk is not a digital actor, just an IRL avatar of Davenport and Beck’s fear of getting left behind in the new digital world—a disturbing portrait of the emerging Übermensch, whose attention could cut like a knife, but at the price of neurotypical behavior, or, the price of being a socially reproductive human (“If you call that living”). One of Paul Cefalu’s hypotheses as to why OCD is largely depicted via humor is the mechanical behavior it produces, like the human automatons pictured in Henri Bergson’s famous theory of comedy.8 All of these things are related: the spike in OCD estimates around the turn of the century plus new monetizable digital attention, the spike in humorous depictions of obsessive-compulsive automaton characters plus the growing fears of automation replacing human jobs,9 and the birth of the digital age plus the onslaught of fear over growing populations of the neurodivergent. And in the 2000s, no neurodivergent population growth was worried over as fiercely as those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.


II.

Shawn Spencer has ADHD. Of course, the show Psych never quite says this, opting to explain Shawn’s blatant symptoms (impulsivity, restlessness, difficulty focusing interspersed with bouts of intense focus) as the result of a charming, boyish personality. Shawn Spencer is the very picture of a schoolboy with ADHD, the clichéd portrait of who possesses the disorder, resulting from bodies of ink spilled in service of ADHD panic (the illness was diagnosed in 15% of high school aged boys by 2013). The first episode of Psych aired in 2006, four years into a 41% decade-long uptick in ADHD diagnoses,10 and five years after the name “attention economy” entered the zeitgeist. The pilot begins with a flashback to Shawn’s youth. Shawn’s father embodies Nir Eyal’s obsession with attention as a “competitive edge”—specifically in the competition of police work, or, the ability to spot patterns in human behavior and thus, potentially criminal breaks in those behavior patterns. In the opening flashback, Shawn’s father makes him perform an exercise we get the sense Shawn is used to performing. He must close his eyes and recite, from visual memory, the details of each hat and its location within the crowded diner where they are seated. In a montage that reconstructs Shawn’s memory, zooming in and highlighting each hat, the audience understands how Shawn’s ADHD—his clinically scattered attention—enables him to amass huge amounts of information that he can retroactively focus on to extract a wealth of information. Shawn identifies the hats and a nearby waitress insinuates that he must want to be a cop when he grows up. Shawn responds, “Oh, I’m never going to grow up.”

Cut-to: present day Shawn, making out with a blonde. The implication of the jump cut is that Shawn has kept his promise, here is the evidence: he can’t stop banging hotties. But when she pins him down on the couch, he accidentally turns on the local news with his butt. The unnamed blonde tries to get frisky, but the news draws Shawn’s eye. He zones in on a lying shopkeep’s telltale nervous hands and calls the police to announce he’s solved the crime. They ask him to come in to the department.


Shawn is the opposite of Monk in every way. He rides a motorcycle and wears a leather jacket to the police station. He’s funny and sarcastic. After observing a forehead tattoo on a man who’s been arrested for destroying his ex’s car, he remarks, smoothly: “You know I have the same tattoo? They spelled ‘Bloodthirsty’ wrong on mine.” Shawn’s held 57 jobs since high school and none of them lasted longer than six months. When he was eighteen he stole a car to impress a girl and got arrested by his dad. Monk is lawful good; Shawn is chaotic neutral. He tells the guy with the forehead tattoo to brush the shards of taillight off his shirtsleeve so as to ditch the evidence. Forehead Tat thanks Shawn and takes his advice, brushing the shards off his shirtsleeve and into his boot. Shawn notices this, inhales like he’s about to warn the man of the persisting evidence, then shakes his head, as if it’s not worth it. He’s in police work for the cash. When the detectives lead him to the interrogation room his first question is, “So, when do I get my money?” Head Detective Lassiter announces he is the lead subject of their investigation.

Shawn tells Lassiter he’s a psychic to get out of being questioned, performing a “vision” in which he hints at truths about people he has already observed as a result of his ADHD plus well-trained focus. The psychic plot is a marketing ploy to make ADHD digestible: both for Shawn in the pilot episode, and the marketing team at USA. USA couldn’t use Shawn’s ADHD as a marketing frame; people were growing increasingly concerned about the disorder in 2006. It wasn’t perceived as well-contained, the way the public thought of OCD in 2002. USA could sell the “psychic” hook instead of bothering to explain why Shawn could fake these powers. Psych is significantly less honest than Monk about the nature of its protagonist’s neurodivergence. Still, Shawn’s disorder is laid plain for those in the know, and appears funny to those who are not. In an advertisement for the first season of Psych on DVD, a voiceover announces, “USA’s next brilliant detective…” The music cuts. Shawn is rooting through a suspect’s trash. Gus asks him, appalled, “You’re rooting through the trash?” Shawn doesn’t respond. “Oh my god,” Shawn says, like he has found a key piece of evidence. “What?” Gus asks. Shawn lifts out a CD case, excited. “This CD case is totally nice!”

That’s the joke, and the audience’s entry point to understanding his character: Shawn is the “next brilliant detective” in spite of (and actually, because of) his attention-deficit disorder. “Next” here means “successor to Monk,” whose off-the-chart ratings had ushered in a renaissance for basic cable.11 USA premiered Psych following the season five finale of Monk and continued to play the two back-to-back until Monk ended in 2009. As a result, Psych had the highest-rated basic cable premiere of the year. Similarly to Andy Breckman, Steve Franks did not consider mental disorder to be an important facet of Psych’s basic narrative when he created the show. In a 2010 interview, Franks explains the psychic element as “a role for our guy not to be a cop but get to act like a cop. He didn’t have to go through the training and come up from the ranks…So for me, it was the best of both worlds. You could have the cops and you could also get the guy who still gets to ride his motorcycle and wear jeans.” (I might have thought there was more to Psych’s conception than “what if Monk was hot?” but this was, essentially, how it had gone down.) Like how Monk is a crime show with a twist: Adrian Monk’s “twisted self,” Psych was also a crime show with a twist: Shawn Spencer’s twisted self—his neurodivergence disguised as psychic ability.


USA said it loud and clear, Shawn Spencer was the next Adrian Monk. While this was, supposedly, because they were both brilliant detectives, it was also implicitly because they both had mental disorders that enabled them to resist the attention economy, and subsequently, weaponize their attention to solve crime. Both Shawn and Monk suffer this gift at a terrible price: ADHD and OCD, respectively. According to OCD researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, ADHD is “an externalizing disorder, meaning it affects how people outwardly relate to their environment. Individuals with ADHD may exhibit inattention, lack of impulse control, and risky behaviors. OCD on the other hand is characterized as an internalizing disorder, meaning individuals with OCD respond to anxiety producing environments by turning inward.” To satisfy their narrative desire for cops who didn’t have to be police, Breckman and Franks designated their protagonists’ mental disorders that inhibited them from police work proper for opposite reasons: impulsivity and compulsivity.

Years after Psych and Monk’s premieres, studies would reveal that OCD and ADHD did not merely produce opposite behavior patterns, they were the result of opposite neural patterns in the same part of the brain: the frontostriatal cortex. OCD causes this neural circuit to overload, while ADHD deprives this neural circuit of activity. The OCD researchers continue, “While the disorders are associated with very different patterns of brain activity, the resulting cognitive effects are actually similar, especially in executive functions.” In reality, OCD and ADHD are clinical conditions because many people above and below the shifting diagnostic threshold are truly suffering in everyday life: their executive functions are impaired, not enhanced. The public looked at those with disordered attention with disdain and wonder, as evidenced by the basic premises of Monk and Psych: both characters are better at solving crimes than the police, but aren’t allowed to join the police force because of the neurodivergence that makes them so good at the work.

In certain ways, the shows valorize their protagonists’ disorders. USA describes both characters as “brilliant.” Sharona calls Monk “brilliant” in that opening scene, then later in the pilot, asks him how it feels to always be right. (“Terrible,” he answers.) The Santa Barbara Chief of Police asks Shawn to consult on a kidnapping in the Psych pilot because she’s desperate to prevent the Feds from getting involved. “What I need is a miracle, or a facsimile of one,” she explains. This request follows Shawn’s convincing a holding cell full of men and two police officers that he’s a psychic. In the third episode of Monk, “Mr. Monk and the Psychic,” Sharona introduces Monk to a known fake psychic: “[Monk]’s a psychic who doesn’t believe in psychics.” Shawn and Monk are brilliant, miraculous, and psychic. Only they do not have extrasensory perception, just abnormal attention spans and decent inductive reasoning, a skillset that reads supernatural in the attention economy. However, both shows are pessimistic about their protagonist’s ability to integrate with normal (re: neurotypical) society, pessimism that is writ large across the overarching show narratives and the show’s pilots.


Adrian Monk wants closure over his wife Trudy’s death, preferably in the form of solving her murder (though some fans thought the perfect ending for Monk would be death). “[Some fans] yearn for a reunion with [Monk’s] deceased wife Trudy,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the series finale in 2009. Whether Trudy and Monk end up dead or alive, the important fact is their reunion, the closure necessary to end the show. Monk is a comedy, so it must end in a marriage, in this case, a figurative wedding between Monk and Trudy. The implication is that this will cure Monk’s OCD, instilled by the trauma of Trudy’s unsolved murder. The only way out of Monk’s disorder is re-“marrying” Trudy, aka assimilating into normal (or, reproductive) society. That is the assumed goal of Adrian’s narrative arc: to cure his OCD by solving Trudy’s murder. In a flashback a few minutes into the pilot, we see Trudy from Monk’s perspective, lying in a mess of sheets in bed, a halo of blonde hair framing her bowed smile. The intimacy of the flashback points to a time when Monk was sexed, before his OCD stripped him of that kind of desire, that kind of attention. Now, the opening credits play as Monk neatens his utterly sexless home. What goes unsaid are the stakes at play, the essential stakes of the comedic genre: reproductive futurity—Monk’s capacity to reproduce. OCD internalizes his desires. Monk’s libido gets redirected, in Monk’s imagination, via OCD, so Monk can only focus with laser-like intensity on solving Trudy’s murder.

“Going into Season 8, [Psych] creator Steve Franks knew the writing was on the wall,” a TV.com series finale review of Psych reads. “Psych got back to basics in Season 8, to the heart of what the show was about when it first started: Shawn and his arrested development.” “Arrested development,” or, childlike behavior resulting from an understimulated frontostriatal cortex. What the audience ultimately wants for Shawn (aka what Shawn wants, even though he doesn’t know it) is to grow up. Since Shawn’s undiagnosed “childish behavior” reads as ADHD, growing up then, for Shawn, means ridding himself of attention disorder. What does a properly attentive adult focus on? “Settling down,” says Shawn’s father, over and over, a retired policeman and a divorcee (his loneliness—and Detective Lassiter’s—are the only real critique the show lobbies at policing; this propensity for cops to bring their work home with them, a reality that the show only gestures at with this hollow, hardened detective archetype). According to Shawn’s father, real adults don’t sleep around and fear commitment, they play nice and pick one. Enter Juliet, season one, episode two. Psych, like Monk, is a comedy that must end with a marriage, the solution to the “problem,” or, the ongoing premise of the show—what drives the episodic structure rather than the narrative arc. Both shows present the “problem” as their protagonist’s attention disorder, a problem that can only be solved at the expense of ending the show. Andy Breckman admits in a 2009 Philly Inquirer interview,  “When I wrote the pilot and I wrote that Trudy, Monk’s late wife, died in a car bomb some years earlier, to be honest with you, I never expected in a millions years I’d have to solve that damn crime.” Trudy’s murder isn’t solved until the final episode of Monk; Shawn doesn’t commit to life with Juliet until Psych’s last minutes.


Both pilots express their protagonist’s bleak reproductive prospects via their relationships with guns, which, for the moment’s purposes, we will interpret as penises. Monk’s memorable moment with a gun comes at the episode’s climax, when Sharona is held hostage by the massive, brawny perp. Monk pulls out the gun he stole from Lieutenant Disher (the SFPD confiscated Monk’s gun when he was discharged from the force), but accidentally drops it into the river of sewage beneath him. The key minute of suspense occurs when Monk fights his OCD-induced germophobia to pull the gun out of the sewage, then use it. He misses a couple times. The perp pulls the lights. Sharona screams. Monk takes one final shot in the dark.

Shawn’s gun scene is the complete opposite. He sidles up to Detective Lassiter’s junior blonde partner (who Lassiter happens to be sleeping with) and asks to talk about the case at hand. She suggests they move to the shooting range for privacy. They talk details while she practices on a target sheet. She moves the sheet forward and insists Shawn give it a try. Shawn agrees, but takes her used sheet. When he finishes, she makes a light jab. “You missed.” “Did I really?” He responds, confidently. Saucy music starts to play. The target sheet slides towards them, revealing that, in a strange, flirtatious flex, Shawn has perfectly penetrated all of her missed shots. “Look at that,” Shawn says. “It’s a perfect match.”

In essence, Monk can’t get it up and Shawn can’t get it down. Monk can’t use his gun properly because he is too busy focusing on germs, Shawn can’t use his gun properly because he is too busy focusing on women. They might be brilliant men, but neither can fully assimilate to reproductive society while he possesses his attention disorder.


III.

By Psych’s finale in 2014, America had collectively decided that the spike in ADHD was the result of over-diagnosis—the natural conclusion of our Western educational standards that required children sit down and pay attention for hours on end. One New York Times article from 2013 stoked panic over a new CDC study of ADHD’s rising prevalence—a 16% increase in just five years. Yet the nut graf concludes: “These rates reflect a marked rise over the last decade and could fuel growing concern among many doctors that the A.D.H.D. diagnosis and its medication are overused in American children.” The authors go on to fuel this fire themselves, interviewing a Yale MD Ph.D who says, “Mild symptoms are being diagnosed so readily, which goes well beyond the disorder and beyond the zone of ambiguity to pure enhancement of children who are otherwise healthy.” This doctor states plainly that his main anxiety over rising ADHD diagnoses is the unearned enhancement of healthy, neurotypical children: the competitive advantage of focus that average Joes have to train to acquire, or suffer the agony of a mental disorder. (Similar to Davenport and Beck’s fear of the rising, neurodivergent Übermensch, Dr. William Graf fears that anyone can now attain this ideal by claiming ADHD and receiving a Ritalin prescription.) In the early 2010s, the cultural story of ADHD was inextricable from the story of its treatment: the mass medication of children with new drugs that could also enhance neurotypical attention.

“Expert A.D.H.D. researcher James Swanson says some studies show about 30% of prescription ADHD medication goes to friends,” the NYT article continues. Adderall received FDA approval in 1996, Concerta in 2000, Ritalin in 2002. Their use grew exponentially: from 2012 to 2013, there was a 66% increase in global use of methylphenidate—the generic for Concerta and Ritalin, with the U.S. accounting for more than 80% of those users. And that’s just the legal stuff. The huge increase in ADHD drug use coincided with the beginning of the Silk Road, notorious dark web drug superstore, making Adderall easy to get for anyone with Google and a little persistence. ADHD meds became normal for many American college students. In 2016, The New York Times Magazine released a feature called “Generation Adderall.” The description reads, “Like many of my friends, I spent years using prescription stimulants to get through school and start my career.” The author describes growing up with a generation of peers who all seemed to have a relationship with prescription stimulants. She articulates becoming the Übermensch through Adderall: “Adderall wiped away the question of willpower. Now I could study all night, then run 10 miles, then breeze through that week’s New Yorker, all without pausing to consider whether I might prefer to chat with classmates or go to the movies. It was fantastic.”

ADHD drugs work by stimulating the central nervous system, revving up that under-utilized frontostriatal cortex, and inhibiting impulsiveness. That is why the writer doesn’t pause to think about having fun instead of doing productive things like running and reading The New Yorker. When ingested by people with ADHD, drugs like Adderall and methylphenidate stimulate the frontostriatal cortex and produce a normal level of executive functioning. When ingested by people without ADHD, these drugs stimulate the frontostriatal cortex to produce a seemingly superhuman level of executive functioning. In 2014, Luc Besson premiered his sci-fi thriller Lucy, which follows a woman who takes a drug that allows her to access 100% of her brainpower, as opposed to the typical 10% (it’s a myth that we use only 10% of our brains, but it’s an interestingly persistent one). It’s hard not to read Lucy against the new excitement and fear of bountiful stimulants, the idea that a drug could allow you to use your brain at superhuman capacity, and the idea that this story was necessarily tragic: no human could sustain this superhuman capacity without paying a terrible price.


But who gets to be an Übermensch? Even though 70% of Americans still think ADHD is overdiagnosed, ADHD is underdiagnosed in girls, who need to present more visible symptoms to receive recognition. The prevalence of ADHD in women is still so murky that, depending on who you ask, the ratio of affected men to women is anywhere from 2:1 or 10:1. It is estimated that one-half to three-quarters of all women with ADHD remain undiagnosed. One 2016 study found that Black and Latinx children aged fifth through 10th grade were significantly less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis or take their medication, compliancy disparities the study states are, “more likely related to the underdiagnosis and undertreatment of African-American and Latino children as opposed to overdiagnosis or overtreatment of white children.” As access to ADHD treatment and understanding of the illness has spread to Black and Latinx communities, diagnoses have increased, suggesting a correlation between ADHD education and diagnoses.

While NYT writer Steven Schwarz, author of a 2016 book on the “ADHD Industrial Complex,” ADHD Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic, is correct in blaming pharmaceutical companies for pushing pills on inattentive children, ADHD is not an imaginary disorder dreamt up by Big Pharma. Half the population is still struggling to receive a name for their symptoms, when those symptoms are identified in the first place, which occurs infrequently. It seems ludicrous to claim that ADHD is handily overdiagnosed when doctors are chronically incapable of recognizing the disorder in an entire gender—and every non-white race. Especially considering that an ADHD diagnosis is not a sentence to suffer stimulant dependency: ADHD has been shown to respond well to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, no medication required.

ADHD has an obvious representation problem. I say obvious, because of course the medical establishment, built and maintained by white men, would make white boys the poster children for attention disorders through vigorous diagnosis. Attention was the new economy, and white men historically held economic power. Their inability to gain and wield this power was more noticeable and anxiety-producing than other demographic groups’. The attention economy redefined American attention as essential to biological fitness. Though pathologizing biologically unfit attention has been a net positive for people with ADHD (allowing them to understand and treat their disorders), it has been practiced historically as a tool of white patriarchy to fix white boys with their competitive advantage.


If it wasn’t Big Pharma, what was to blame for the sudden spike in ADHD diagnoses? Who, exactly, made this American epidemic? This is a tricky question, as it gets at the basic assumptions of illness. Journalist Ethan Watters writes a 2011 Op-Ed on the ADHD epidemic for the Times.

“What the history of psychiatry tells us is this: Mental illnesses are not spread evenly among populations over time but come and go as unique and deeply complicated combinations of culture and biology. Which symptoms we collectively see as legitimate determines how we individually express internal feelings and unease. Psychiatric historians suggest that every generation has a “symptom pool,” behaviors by which individuals can communicate their distress. The really mind-bending fact — the one that Americans can rarely seem to grasp — is that just because these disorders are culturally shaped does not make them necessarily less real. Those Victorian-era women really did faint and experience the paralysis, tics and fainting spells found in their symptom pool. Their unconscious learned, in short, to speak the language of suffering for their time. In certain historical moments, a given diagnosis will hit such a resonant cultural note that it catches fire. This, I believe, is the story of A.D.H.D.”

Hysteria was not, as I had understood it to be, a male label for run-of-the-mill female distress, but an illness with demonstrable symptoms that had been produced, at least in part, by the biological indigestion of patriarchy (not only had Victorian women’s minds learned to speak the language of their time’s suffering, their bodies had, too). As Watters says, mental illnesses—though I would argue physical illnesses too, as the separation of body and mind and the consequent separation of their illness is the result of historically recent, European thinking—“come and go as unique and deeply complicated combinations of culture and biology.” The bodies of Victorian-era women rendered visible the invisible cultural forces oppressing them. Illness is both biological and cultural, despite its recent relegation to the realm of empirical science (“empirical science,” in itself a culture-bound understanding of truth).

While obsessive-compulsive behavior has been identified across the world, the forms it takes greatly depend on a person’s specific cultural taboos. For example, a whopping tenth of all U.S. OCD patients have sexual orientation obsessions, fears that they are experiencing an unwanted change in sexual orientation or gender identity—fears that exist, undoubtedly, because of the US’s cultural taboos surrounding gender expression and queerness. Consider America’s current resurgence of long-cured diseases due to anti-vaccination conspiracies: the biological result of a cultural event resulting from a biological event (a rise in Autism diagnoses) lacking cultural understanding, or the 2009 swine flu panic: the cultural product of a biological event resulting from cultural practices (farming and travel), biology and culture forever circumscribing around each other like rippling water under an infinite weight.


ADHD is a criminalized disorder that gets little attention as such. It’s estimated that 25-40% of prisoners have ADHD, largely undiagnosed and untreated—compared to the 9.1% estimate of ADHD prevalence in American children, three-quarters of whom receive proper care. Formally incarcerated people with ADHD are more likely to break parole and commit the same offense multiple times. The nature of ADHD, its impairment of executive functioning skills, makes people with ADHD particularly prone to law breaking, namely thrill-seeking and drug use. ADHD makes it difficult for people to do minor tasks that can bolster or ruin their reputation in court, like file their paperwork correctly or show up on time. Children with ADHD are more likely to develop antisocial personality disorder in adulthood, the psychiatric equivalent of a criminal diagnosis. (ASPD has always been critically tied to criminality; its first name was “moral insanity.”) The prevalence of ASPD among the incarcerated hovers under 50%. ASPD’s trademark symptom, disobeying authority, makes it difficult to treat.

Antisocial personality disorder was first added to the DSM-III in 1980 as a better-researched term for the condition previously known as “psychopathy.” ASPD focused on the symptoms cluster rather than a knee-jerk understanding of these individuals: behavior that expressly and repeatedly violated established social norms, including moral codes. However, not everyone was pleased with this behavior-focused definition. Richard Jenkins, consultant for personality disorder definitions in the DSM-IV, argued that behavior-based definitions had racist undertones, as they didn’t account for logical criminal or antisocial responses to institutional racism. Jenkins argued in vain for psychopathy as a distinct subset of ASPD, for individuals the psychiatric community could only understand through the lens of bad moral wiring. Though today’s DSM does not technically mention psychopathy or sociopathy, these are commonly understood as twin strains of ASPD, the first rare and malevolent, the second common and amoral. Sociopaths are supposedly capable of feeling empathy, while psychopaths lack this ability. Sociopaths outnumber psychopaths by an estimated three to one, comprising, alongside narcissistic personality disorder, the vast majority of people with ASPD. ADHD remains the most predictive factor that children will develop ASPD as adults.


At the end of the day, Monk and Shawn just want to be legitimized by the state. Both show’s pilots feature key moments whose drama hinges on whether or not the police chief will trust the protagonist. When Monk accuses the campaign manager of offing his candidate’s bodyguard for knowing too much, the campaign manager looks to everyone else, “Can you believe this guy? You are out of your mind, out of your mind.” A hopeful clarinet begins to play in the background. Monk continues to unspool the campaign manager’s crime. “I don’t have to stand there and listen to this,” the manager says, walking away. Captain Stottlemeyer stops him with his brawny, ginger chest: “Yes, you do. Yes you do.” The key legitimizing moment in Psych is almost the exact same. Shawn screams as Lassiter carries him toward the police car, hands cuffed behind his back. He tells Chief Vick to check millionaire McCallum’s wrist for incriminating dog bites. The chief gives a pregnant pause, then says, “Why not?” and the music changes. Shawn is uncuffed after McCallum confesses. As much as Monk and Shawn are painted as the good guys, they are still at the mercy of the police when it comes to deciding if their vigilantism is good or bad.

It’s darkly ironic that Shawn needs to be legitimized by a force that has criminalized people with his attention disorder. It’s darkly ironic that Monk wants to lock people up considering he’s neurologically wired to criminalize his own behavior, constantly punishing himself for intrusive thoughts and refraining from or participating in his compulsions. People with OCD distinctly understand the futility of crime and punishment: their disorder involves performing ritual behavior (punishment) to absolve themselves of mental stress (crime), which, once again, only works to cause more mental stress (recidivism). People with OCD are ten times more likely to commit suicide than neurotypical people.


The plots of both shows rely on Monk and Shawn being police-adjacent: normalcy via state legitimacy forever just out of reach, or, a gift that is bestowed on them from time to time but never lasts ‘til the next episode. While the shows might have overarching narratives that crave resolution via curing the protagonists’ neurodivergence, they’re both episodic crime shows that need the architecture of Monk and Shawn’s disorders to survive.

Both pilots end with meta-textual dialogue reflecting on this fact. The last scene of Monk’s pilot frames Adrian and Sharona as they walk under the Golden Gate Bridge, Adrian stopping to tap each metal pole cemented to the ground. Sharona says she’ll make Monk some dinner and Monk remarks that it’s Tuesday, chicken pot pie night. Sharona says, “Actually, I was thinking of trying something different.” Monk stops in his tracks. “I’m kidding!” Sharona clarifies. It’s a joke, but it’s also a reflection on the structure of Monk: he will see Dr. Kroger every week, but he won’t change, not really.

Psych’s pilot ends with Shawn showing Gus the new digs for their private psychic detective agency: “Psych.” “‘Psych?’ As in, ‘Got you?’” Gus explains the bad, obvious joke of the show’s title, but follows Shawn in anyways, perhaps due to his queer-coded loyalty to Shawn. Shawn reveals some psychopathic behavior: he forged Gus’s signature on the office lease and threatens anal goody-goody Gus with a lowered credit score if Gus makes him forfeit the space and pay a six-month lease penalty. Gus, understandably, gets more upset. Shawn soothes him by informing him they’ve just received a new case from the chief: a murder. The pair hops in their infamous blue Toyota echo. Gus asks, “Just for today, right?” Shawn responds, “Just for today,” another meta-textual reflection on the plot structure: a short-term lie that will sustain episode after episode, one of the show’s contradictions—that Shawn behaves criminally in order to catch criminals—that Shawn and Adrian get to use their difference to police others’, but they will always be at the mercy of the state’s judgment as to whether their difference is lawful or criminal, worth locking up in a psych ward or worth locking up in prison.


IV.

The narrative shapes of Monk and Psych suggest that their protagonist’s disorders are their own carceral systems. Procedural shows are perfect for mass syndication because they are circles: the crime is punished, which leads to more crime, which leads to more punishment, episode after episode, a viewer can tune in at any time to watch the systemic failure of American law and order. Monk and Psych imply that disordered attention is its own cyclical procedural, causing the same jokes and gaffes, triumphs and failures, episode after episode. It is an indictment of carceral punishment as much as it is a misunderstanding of neurodivergence, which is only a prison from the perspective of a culture that criminalizes mental illness.

Neurodivergence of all kinds has increased as global capitalism has consolidated money into few white, male hands, constricting representations of “normalcy” into similarly few white, male hands. Davenport and Beck’s fear of the new neurodivergent Übermensch came true; only these Übermensches are not all-powerful, just individuals biologically adjusted to late capitalism. Michael Rich, director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Center on Media, refused to participate in a 2018 study investigating the link between screen time and ADHD. (Previous research has shown that children with ADHD spend more time on screens than children without, that the clickable, swipe-able, swift stimulation seems intrinsically pleasing to an attention-deficit/hyperactive disordered mind.) He told The Verge, “Is this how we are evolving as a species? And is this a bad thing to do, or is this actually going to be helpful for the future?” While mental disorders are too complicated to merely theorize as “helpful” improvements for the future (like my friend with bipolar used to argue, “I’m not mentally ‘divergent,’ I’m mentally ill”), there does seem to be growing recognition from the medical community that illness, both mental and physical, is cultural as much as it is biological, and is biologically reproduced by the medical community’s cultural norms.


Prestige news has become the first industry of the twenty-first century to refuse the free internet model, bowing awkwardly and incompletely out of the attention economy in hopes of journalism freed from the pressures of ads and clickbait. So the kind of people who can afford The Washington Post share Washington Post articles; the kind of people who can afford Medium blog posts share Medium blog posts. Cookies allow advertisers our personal information, so all of our ads are personalized for greater buying potential. I do not think twice when I text a friend about a purchase and see an ad for that purchase on my screen the next day. In 2020, everyone knows that their dialogue is being recorded and transcribed by their technology for the purpose of more personalized advertising, though no company will admit to this—a farce that has grown so unbelievable it seems unlikely the American public will give a damn when the story breaks, behind paywalls we don’t bother to scale. In 2020, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable transition: reckoning with the failures of the attention economy but unable to find a substitute that’s accessible in a world where money is criminally ill-distributed.

As the medical establishment better understands human attention, that information becomes available to companies, who use this understanding to manipulate their customers. Companies have the most data ever on their consumers, which means they can manipulate people to increasingly personal extents. Nir Iyal’s first book, published six years prior to 2019’s Indistractable, is titled Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products. Behavioral design, Eyal argues, is the key to lasting products—like how Instagram trains us to press its icon whenever we are bored, or how Apple has trained us to use their products exclusively. In our current late-capitalist state, massive companies control our every interaction, our media, and even our presidential elections. We have absorbed companies into our vocabulary and behavior, our identities and desires, all because these companies can afford to pay behavioral design experts to test-run each product to perfection. The upcoming class of entrepreneurs won’t be satisfied until their company name is a verb: companies are not companies but “lifestyle brands,” ever-encroaching on our recorded “private” spaces. It takes obsessive, antisocial behavior to extract one’s self from capitalist influence.

While ADHD and OCD in their twenty-first century iterations might be produced, at least in part, by the attention economy, they also offer models of resistance—of misdirected or under-focused attention that defies economic extraction. Attention disorders force us to question the Manichean logic of Nir Iyal: capitalize your attention or someone else will capitalize it for you. While the creators of Monk and Psych might see their characters’ disorders as prisons, in the context of our constantly recorded attention economy, neurotypical society is a more insidious prison. Shawn and Adrian allow us to conceptualize attention as an unquantifiable resource, and, as such, one that can never be paid.


Sophie Dillon

Sophie Dillon

she/hers

is still figuring it out.

Back to top