On the Bubble: Psych

Posted on September 21, 2011


We started watching Psych in 2006 because of the concept. It airs on the USA Network, so we thought it would have good characters, but the idea of a detective who pretends to be psychic in order to get work seemed fun. It had lots of possibilities for commenting on the very low success rate of psychic detectives, and the gullibility (or heartbreaking desperation) of those who reach out to them. We didn’t recognize any of the stars by name, but then we didn’t really know who Tony Shalhoub was (even though we’d seen him in many things) before we watched Monk.

We Liked It

The show centers around Shawn Spencer. Shawn is a self-centered thrill-seeker with a severe allergy to hard work. His father, Henry, is a retired Santa Barbara police officer with a chestful of ribbons from his years of public service. After a divorce, Henry raised Shawn himself and tried to teach Shawn everything he would need to be a great police officer – including extremely high perceptive abilities. He’s not super-human, but he notices things that most people don’t, and he tends to enter situations with an open mind (sometimes too open) so he notices things that fall into other people’s blind spots.

When the show began, Shawn had failed, or quit, everything he’d ever done. Returning to Santa Barbara, he met his childhood friend Burton “Gus” Guster and tried to right a wrong. The trouble was, the police wouldn’t listen to Shawn. Henry had poisoned that well with comments about his ne’er-do-well son, and Shawn failed the Police Academy too many times to be taken seriously. So he invented a psychic ability and solved the case.

The first seasons were all about struggling. Gus had a real job as a pharmaceutical sales representative, and getting time to drive Shawn around and help with cases interfered with his work. Shawn struggled with a trap of his own creation. He was finally doing what his dad wanted him to do, but he couldn’t explain that without destroying his psychic cover story. Henry loves Shawn, but can’t stand Shawn’s frivolous ways. Shawn likes and respects the officers of the SBPD, but can’t tell them the truth without destroying his cover story. That would lose him the work, and he genuinely loves the work – somewhat to his surprise.

On the Bubble

The trouble is, struggle is only interesting for so long. Eventually you wonder why Shawn doesn’t just admit it’s a bullshit story he concocted in order to demonstrate his prowess as a detective. Surely he’s earned some respect by now for all the cases he’s solved. Eventually you wonder why Henry and Gus don’t stage an intervention with Shawn. He’s clearly an intelligent young man. You wonder why they put up with his disparagement and his frivolity, leaving them to pay the bills and clean up his messes.

To give everyone on the show the credit that they deserve, they’ve kept it going for four seasons so far. Season Four did a story arc where Shawn had to shed most of his frivolity and face the responsibility of his chosen work – or his loved ones would die. Ally Sheedy’s Mr. Yang serial killer character showed Shawn the dark reality lurking behind Santa Barbara’s sunny boardwalk.

Then they just threw all that away and went back to silly Shawn.


As I pointed out last week, series TV often falls into formulas. Formulaic TV gives studios revenue they can count on. To its credit, Psych has always focused on how Shawn could solve the case without revealing that he’s a fraud (real detective, fake psychic, as the marketing put it). The police officers and Shawn’s partner, Gus, keep him on his toes. If he exaggerates his methods too much or uses the same schtick too often, they call him on it.

That said, when the show began, it treated the set-up realistically. Shawn had to struggle to hide his real skills. He had to struggle with real issues about Gus’ availability, his relationship with Henry, and the relationship he wants to have with Detective Juliet O’Hara. James Roday did an excellent job bringing out Shawn’s internal emotional life, and showing us his real concern with these kinds of issues.

Now, it’s all gotten too easy. The creators have moved away from real issues and caring Shawn, to case-of-the-week episodes and silly Shawn.


We intend to watch Season Five carefully. Last season, Psych became one of those shows that we weren’t excited to watch, but generally enjoyed when we did. This season, we decide whether it belongs in our DVR line-up at all.

What do you think? Did you stop watching a police/detective show that you used to really like? Tell us about it in the comments – and thanks for reading.