John Walker's Electronic House

Television: Psych (Repost)

by on Feb.26, 2010, under The Rest

I wonder if USA will complain about this stolen image to promote their show.

I’m reposting this piece about Psych written about a year and a half ago as it’s no longer online elsewhere. Giant Realm briefly had me writing about TV (one day, somewhere, I’ll get a regular gig writing about TV for a magazine or website that won’t immediately close down) before they pulled their entire blog. This is the unedited version, because the edited was so comprehensively translated into American that it often didn’t read like me.

And I should add in the interests of balance, this week’s episode of Psych was awful. Fortunately, last week’s was one of the best ever.

At the mention of its name, the reaction people give to Psych tends to be, “That show? Really? I saw maybe one episode – it seemed alright.” I want to put that right. I want to convince you that Psych is the most entertaining show on TV this summer. I will use a collection of silly names, and a pineapple.

The show’s conceit, to put it mildly, is contrived. Shawn Spencer (James Roday, Miss Match) is the son of a retired cop, who spent his childhood having observational skills drummed into him by his forbidding father. As an adult he’s kept his hyper-observant talents, but no job for longer than three months. That’s until his habit for solving crimes by watching the local evening news caused the police to become suspicious. Needing a way out to prevent his being arrested, he invented the story that he was a psychic, convincing the officers and detectives by throwing out a few ‘hot reads’ based on all the stuff his eagle eyes had spotted. Well, convincing all of them but one, the surly Detective Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) remaining heavily sceptical.

Realising the potential for this, and being asked by the (interim) police chief (Kirsten Nelson) to help out on a case, Shawn ropes in his childhood best friend, Burton ‘Gus’ Guster (West Wing’s Dulé Hill), and forms the private detective agency, Psych. So far, so much nonsense. But that’s the key. This is about nonsense, from top to bottom to either side. It’s a celebration of being silly, loosely draped over a fond parody of procedural crime drama. Embrace the nonsense, and you won’t be able to resist the show.

Created and overseen by Steve Franks (er, writer of Big Daddy, but ignore that), Psych’s ensemble cast (also including L.A. Law veteran Corbin Bersnen as Shawn’s dad, and Maggie Lawson as Detective Lassiter’s junior partner, Juliet O’Hara) are given a joyful freedom to improvise within the structure. And fantastically, they’re all competent and confident to do that. In fact, many of the series’ best running gags have begun as off-script moments.

So a typical episode: There’s a flashback to the 80s, as we see little Shawn and Gus up to some childhood shenanigans, which will reflect on that episode’s theme. Cut to the present day, and Shawn and Gus stumble upon a crime, often a murder, either by coincidence or being called in by the police. Shawn then scans the scene, takes in all the vital information, and cracks irreverent comments in inappropriate surroundings. Gus huffs and puffs in the background, and complains that he should be at work, or runs outside to be sick. Then Shawn drags Gus along on his entirely illegal methods of investigation (breaking into places, reading private documents, that sort of thing) and then later has a “psychic vision” for the police that legitimately leads them toward what he’d illegitimately found. Ploughing through a few suspects, and a row with his dad, eventually Shawn will pip the cops to the post, and present his Poirot-meets-Seann William Scott accusatory speech. The criminal fesses up, and Lassiter groans. Cue gags for epilogue.

But the reason this works, the reason this is the show that should be filling your empty months of television’s summer wasteland, is because this is simply the framework to support that episode’s daftness. Each episode is themed. Perhaps it’s spoofing a particular television programme, like season 2’s opener, American Duos, tearing American Idol a new one, with the most cruel and hilarious mockery of Paula Abdul’s, er, tiredness and confusion. Nevermind Tim Curry as a Simon Cowell-like, spitting venomous bile while someone is incessantly trying to murder him. Or perhaps it’s their recent tribute to The Goonies, with Steven Weber as Shawn’s treasure hunting uncle, brilliantly titled “The Greatest Adventure In The History Of Basic Cable”. (Actually, I want to throw a couple of other episode titles at you, because, well, they’re brilliant. “Meat Is Murder, But Murder Is Also Murder,” for instance. Or how about, “Woman Seeking Dead Husband: Smokers Okay, No Pets”? Their Latino soap opera episode, “Lights Camera… Homicido”? But I don’t know whether, purely for its literal simplicity, “Gus’s Dad May Have Killed An Old Guy” can be beaten).

Each episode contains an array of running jokes. Shawn introducing Gus to a stranger is always best, and one of the gags that began as an improvised moment by James Roday when he said, “Hello, I’m Shawn Spencer and this is my partner, Gus ‘Sillypants’ Jackson.” The writers picked up on it, and it’s inescapable. “My name is Byron Bojangles III, this is my partner, Shutterfly Simmons.” After breaking into hospital changing rooms, emerging in a white coat: “Hello, I’m Dr. Howser, and this is my personal candy striper, Nicknack.” Forced to work alongside his father in this season’s “Disco Didn’t Die. It Was Murdered!”, (a ludicrous tribute to 1970s cop shows, including the most remarkably dumb excuse for having them dressed up in appropriately ‘hip’ clothing), he exasperatedly interrupts Shawn’s attempt with, “Yeah, yeah, that’s his partner Methuselah Honeysuckle, which makes me Old Scratch Johnson.”

I’m not winning you over with silly names? How about a never-explained love for the pineapple, the pleasingly-shaped fruit making a cameo appearance in every episode, no matter how strained? No? Dammit. Well, try this: Psych has to be the only show on television in which the two heroes run away at the merest sight of danger. Both are complete cowards, pegging it the moment something unusual happens. The gusto they put into their fleeing is worth the show alone.

I’m not sure it can be done without just watching it. And I implore you to give it a go. The cast are so strong, and confident enough with their roles to be able to try to throw each other in the middle of a scene. Outtakes prove that rarely is the same line delivered twice in following takes. The guest stars are increasingly fantastic, the most recent featuring the permanently brilliant Jane Lynch. The themes are increasingly rich, the second episode of the current run (“Murder?… Anyone?… Anyone?… Bueller?”) built around every John Hughes movie ever, including Shawn’s performance of all the dances from that awful scene in The Breakfast Club. Oh, just watch it, please!

This is what it comes down to: Good television writing is to be treasured. That it happens to be a show with the most ridiculous conceit of all, and one that frankly doesn’t make much sense by season 3 where he might just as well tell the police he isn’t a psychic, what with a proven record of over 30 arrests based on his observational skills, isn’t a reason to roll your eyes at it. It’s a reason to realise the writers totally get that, and love it. They mock conventions of television constantly, Shawn once thanking Gus for “nutshelling” the story so far. It’s self-aware, bubbling over with enthusiasm, beautifully scripted, and with a stunning cast. It just happens to be ludicrous. And that’s great. And that’s why you should love it. Final proof. Watch this utterly irrelevant trailer.

(Not embedded because the USA network is so ASTONISHINGLY stupid that they’ve prevented embedding on A TRAILER FOR THEIR PROGRAMME.)


5 Comments for this entry

  • Schmung

    I’ll give it a whirl, I think Hulu has some episodes from the current season.

    Sounds like it’s got a similar vibe to Castle (which is probably my second favourite telly thing at present) with it’s light-hearted tone and send ups of all things police procedural.

  • Marcin Tasz

    Just a Note for anyone who might be convinced by this to watch the show… If you can in any way, watch seasons 1-3 at first. I know its hard because Hulu and the TV and OnDemand has the new season 4, but the honest truth is that as far as Psych is concerned, season 4 is kinda weak. Stick to the the first three for your first viewings. It’ll help you appreciate the show better. And if possible… Watch the 1st episode. It very neatly sums everything up and is one of my favorite first episodes in a world where 1st episodes are often weak.

  • Masked Dave

    So something just shocked me about myself, I read this article and then went to watch the video and realised I’d just been assuming the black guy is the sidekick!

    The fact I turned out to be right doesn’t exactly make things better but yeah, I’m ashamed at myself. :(

  • jeff

    psych is superb, i was really surprised at how well written and funny it was when i first came across it.. great stuff.

  • cmichaelcooper

    Thank you so much for re-posting this!