A funny thing has been happening lately. I’ll be hunkering down to watch a few episodes of some dark new show about some guy who does bad things in the past and/or future and I’ll get an episode and a half into it and suddenly I’m just watching episodes of Psych again. I’m not always sure how it happened, either. But at some point I must have closed whatever window I had open and switched over to Amazon Prime, which has all eight seasons of the USA show available for streaming. It’s not great for, like, my job performance, but I’ve been enjoying the heck out of it. I don’t know. I’m okay with it.
My colleague Alan Sepinwall wrote about this earlier in the week, how rewatching old shows can cut into your time to keep up on new ones but is good for the soul. This is especially true of what I call “comfort food TV.” The label covers a lot, from smart comedies like Parks and Recreation or 30 Rock to dramas like ER or The West Wing to fun procedural like Burn Notice or, again, Psych. There’s just so much heavy stuff out there in the world right now and so much heavy stuff on television that sometimes you need a break. That’s what this is about. Give yourself a break. Watch Psych.
1. Psych went something like this: Shawn Spencer (James Roday) was an unfocused slacker who had been trained by his police detective father to notice clues and observe his surroundings, almost at a superhuman/X-Men level. Instead of becoming a detective, though, he just used his skills to call in crimes between long stretches of goofing off, which makes the police suspicious as to how he knows all of this, which leads to Shawn pretending his information came from psychic powers, as one does. He opens a psychic detective agency with his more anxious and mature childhood best friend Burton “Gus” Guster (Dule Hill) and they start serving as police consultants, usually teaming up with no-nonsense detective Carlton Latter (Timothy Omundson) and Juliet “Jules” O’Hara (Maggie Lawson), the latter of whom becomes Shawn’s love interest. It’s a whole thing.
2. If that all sounds kind of silly, there’s an explanation for that: It was very silly. But, like, in a good way. The show was light and fun (most of the time) and loaded with pop culture references. It came from the era of USA’s Blue Skies programming, when characters were welcome and problems were solved in the same 42-minute episode they were introduced. Looking for a break from dark and dreary dramas about conflicted antiheroes? Psych. Looking for a rewatch to pop on at the end of a stressful day? Also Psych. The show was a very good version of what it was trying to be and probably better than it needed to be, which is all I really need and want out of a show sometimes.
3. If this all also sounds a lot like the plot of the CBS drama The Mentalist, there’s a good reason for that, too: It is a lot like the CBS drama The Mentalist. The thing is, though, Psych came first. The show pointed this out a number of times, sometimes in winking references that came so close to breaking the fourth wall that they were already holding a sledgehammer.
4. The key to the show was the relationship between Shawn and Gus. Roday and Hill have great chemistry together, bouncing off each other as they talk to suspects, and playing it kind of like a younger, less deeply-troubled version of Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon. They always appeared to be having a total blast and that infectious, bouncy energy spread around through the whole show.
5. I lied. The key to the show was the faces Dule Hill made. I don’t care if you’re coming in fresh or doubling back for a rewatch, focus on his face while Shawn is talking to a third party. I realized this maybe around the third season and it really added to the whole experience. I can’t do it justice with words and a still image won’t help because there are dozens of little micro-movements to catch. If you watch the show, just pay attention. My gift to you.
6. That video brings me to another thing I loved about Psych: Names. Most of them fake and given to Gus by Shawn. Lord knows I love a good fake name and there are some good ones in there. The full list is here, because the internet will never not be fully comprehensive when it comes to this kind of thing, but highlights include: Galileo Humpkins, Lavender Gooms, Lodge Blackman, Flapjack Palmdale.
I am still not over Galileo Humpkins. I might never be.
7. There was also a character named Pierre Despereaux, which is an incredible name. He was a master thief (with a secret) played by Cary Elwes. Psych had a solid run of guest stars like that, recognizable faces popping up here and there in key roles. Ally Sheedy played a suspected serial killer. Cybill Shepherd and Corbin Bernsen played Shawn’s parents. Phylicia Rashad, Ernie Hudson, and Keith David played Gus’s parents. (He didn’t have two dads, the show just recast the role.) William Shatner and Jeffrey Tambor played Jules’s dad and stepdad, respectively. Mira Sorvino, Kristy Swanson, Anthony Michael Hall, Rachel Leigh Cook, etc. etc. etc. Boyz II Men appeared in an episode once and recorded their own version of the theme song, too. I’m amazed I didn’t lead with that.
8. Here’s the thing: I don’t think I appreciated Psych enough when it was on. It ran right around the time The Sopranos and The Wire we’re ending and shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men were picking up steam. Television was very good in the 2006-2010 range and not yet at the flood levels of quantity we’re seeing now. The result was a lot of shows like this getting derided as fluff, especially by critics. But now that we’re on our 500th antihero copycat of those shows, most of them diluted in quality and spread across dozens of channels and streaming platforms, I find myself kind of missing shows like Psych and Burn Notice. It’s nice that I can circle back and enjoy them again with a rewatch, but there aren’t many new shows like this stepping up to fill that comfort food role. It’s a shame, really.
9. The unfair thing about this is that the sudden surge in “quality” television shows led USA to switch from Blue Skies shows like this to heavier and darker shows like Mr. Robot and the Jessica Biel murder drama The Sinner. The network listened to people like me praise other shows for being bold and auteur-y and they were like “Cool, we’ll give them that.” Now here I am a few years later talking about how much I miss the shows we shamed them into moving away from. I imagine someone at USA is reading this post and heaving a vase at the wall in anger. I’m sorry. I will buy you a new vase. Unless vases are expensive. I’ve never purchased a vase. Maybe I’ll just get you a gift card to Ikea.
10. When I was making notes for this post so I remembered what to discuss and where, that last section was just labeled “robot sinner” because I knew I wanted to mention Mr. Robot and The Sinner. As I look at it again now, though, I’m realizing it could be a decent fake name for Gus, too. Dr. Robot Sinner. Is that something? Hmm. I don’t know.
I should watch three to nine more episodes to figure it out.