What is up with the USA Network? Until four or five weeks ago, besides a handful of “Monk” episodes, I’d never spent much time on the channel. It had always been synonymous to me as the home of one of those wrestling shows and hours and hours of procedural reruns. It was like the poor man’s TNT network. But now: USA Network is the goddamn crack-cocaine of basic cable. The phenomenal “Burn Notice,” turned me onto it, but that was like a few free rocks to get you hooked, a little taste to rub on your gums. But now, after spending the last three weeks with “Psych,” I can’t wake up or go to sleep without mainlining that junk. I need a rock in the morning and the only thing that gets me through the day is knowing that, if I can get through one more trade piece, get the kid fed and off to bed early enough, I can mainline a couple of hours of that smack before drifting off into candied bliss. I got the jones so bad that, sometimes just to get me through the day, I’ll even watch an episode of “Royal Pains.” And that show is crap — some weak-ass horse that gives me convulsions.
But “Psych.” Good God, people. What an unbelievably addictive show. And like “Burn Notice,” it is quintessential summer TV. It’s the perfect junk food — it taste delicious, but it doesn’t sit too heavy. It’s easy to watch, breezy as hell, and there’s just enough charm and intelligence to not make you feel bad about yourself for watching it. And it feels so good going down. I don’t know how I’m going to make it to the Season 4 premiere in August; I may have to start watching “In Plain Sight,” just for the pleasure of watching the “Psych” promos during the commercial breaks.
“Psych,” which has ran now for three seasons (you’d be surprised how quickly you can get through 47 episodes), like “Burn Notice,” “Monk,” and the other USA Network offerings, is kind of a throwback to episodic hour-long shows, which don’t seem to exist anymore except for bland procedurals (and CBS’s “The Mentalist” is a rip-off of “Psych,” if I ever saw one, as is “Lie to Me.”). James Roday, who also produces and writes for the show, plays Shawn Spencer, a psychic detective. He’s not really a psychic, however. Thanks to his hard-ass, captious father, Henry (Corbin Bernson), Shawn developed brilliant observational skills. He’s just really perceptive, which makes him an ideal detective. But, since he can’t or won’t actually be a cop, he pretends to be psychic, which allows him to work for the Santa Barbara police department — it’s a scam, but it’s perfectly self-aware, and Shawn plays it toward the silly, sarcastic side. His best friend, Gus (Dule Hill), plays his straight man — Gus has a day job in pharmaceutical sales, a job become increasingly irrelevant to the series (it’s provided a couple of plotlines, and is useful when certain drugs are central to the mystery, but it’s mostly extraneous). Timothy Omundson is head detective Carlton Lassiter — he’s the show’s skeptic, who is constantly annoyed at Shawn no matter how many times Shawn solves a case or saves Carlton’s ass. Maggie Lawson plays Carlton’s partner, Juliet, and also a potential love interest to Shawn (their relationship really only advances during the season finales — it’s very David and Maddie from “Moonlighting,” pre-writer’s strike). Finally, Kirsten Nelson plays the hard-nosed department chief, who is equal parts annoyed and grateful for Shawn.
I’ll grant that “Psych” took some time to find its legs. In the first few episodes, Shawn Spencer was more grating than he was charming; the dynamic with the police department didn’t all together work; and the big psychic finish annoyed the hell out of me, mostly because it was so unnecessary (they’ve dialed back the psychic histrionics to some degree). And as a huge fan of Dule Hill from “The West Wing,” I was also a little peeved that Gus wasn’t the real star of the show.
But something happened around episode five or six. The writers dropped a couple of references to “Airwolf” and “CHiPS,” and the feedback must’ve been encouraging, because since then, the references to 80’s and early 90’s pop culture have not only multiplied, but become increasingly esoteric. It went from Judd Nelson to Rae Dong Chong references, and occasionally, they’ll even land an allusion that I have to look up (Iron Sheik and Nicholai Volkoff, for instance), which is as satisfying as watching an 80’s Dennis Miller stand-up routine without any of the smarm. And the references play so perfectly into the relationship between Shawn and Gus — in a way, they’ve become what Zach Braff and Donald Faison used be to on “Scrubs” before Bill Lawrence starting playing up the often uncomfortable secretly-in-love with each other vibe.
And since it’s become this goldmine of 80’s references, “Pych” has started bringing in guest stars from the very era they reference: Cybil Shepard, Curtis Armstrong, Mackenzie Astin, Rachel Leigh Cook, Jonathan Silverman, Phylicia Rashad, Ernie Hudson, and — in last season’s finale — the biggest get yet, Ally Sheedy. If they get ever get Molly Ringwald, the world will explode from joy (I hear that Cary Elwes will be in a Season 4 ep). There’s also a handful of theme episodes, which will play into those references — there’s a Hughesian high-school reunion episode, a slasher film ep, and a 70s blaxtploitation episode that will floor you. With all the useless 80s trivia coursing through “Pysch,” it’s become sort of a movie critic’s dream show. And it also employs several episode directors from that era (John Landis, Joanna Kerns, Tim Matheson), who help to inject the throwback vibe.
The cases themselves are … well, they’re OK. The show has settled into such a comfortable formula that it’s often not that hard to follow the pattern to eliminate red herrings and surmise who the week’s villain is. But the cases are hardly the point of the show — they’re just the meat to wrap the banter around. In a way, the formula is not just comforting, the recurring motifs give you something to look forward to and keep an eye on in each episode (where will the pineapple be? How will Shawn introduce Gus this week? To what nursery rhyme will they allude? Who will get to say “murder”?)
Moreover, the fact that Shawn’s psychic abilities are a ruse keeps the show lighthearted — even with at least one murder per episode, it never gets bogged down by the super-seriousness that plagues “Psyche’s” dramatic counterparts: “The Ghost Whisperer” and “Medium” (in either respect, it’s an infinitely better show than both). The murders are often grim, but the show never is. It’s flitty, funny, and steeped in pop-culture allusions, without ever getting too cute about it. In other words, even more than “Burn Notice,” it’s the perfect summer show. And I don’t know how I’m going to get through the rest of July without it.