Psych’s basic set-up is just brilliant to me. The idea of Shawn Spencer, brilliant detective, doubling as a fake psychic allows for near unlimited dramatic irony. It also allows for some four wall slippage, since Shawn and Gus know more than everyone else. Their own continued in-jokes can almost be seen as directly referencing an audience. Couple this with what I’ve mentioned before—USA Network’s solid ad campaigns that take the actors out of the show in semi-character and play little jokes and gags with them.
A few of these ads even go as far as to make light of the show’s subtle way of addressing the fourth wall, with Shawn picking the duo’s theme music in one commercial, and asking Gus if he thinks they might just be the stars of a television show in another.
To me, this is the way fourth wall treatments have to stay. Sure, they’ve been done brilliantly in a pure direct fashion (e.g. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man), but canon is ultimately more important, in my mind, in any sort of non-farcical series. I have issues with the use of the term “the real world,” or “your world” (spoken to an implied audience/reader), in fiction, and when you’ve addressed the viewer, you’ve, to some extent, done just that.
Much of my writing makes light of this fact, since I have writers in the universe that I’ve begun to create who both play characters in it and write it, themselves. But the world they came from is not the real world, just one a lot more like ours than the one that they now inhabit. Psych seems to understand my beef with this and avoids direct references to the audience, but still reaps the benefits of an aside every now and then.
The main problem I have with a show like Psych is how often it deals with murder as a comedy. Along with Monk, I would say that Psych’s main problem has to do with the fact that so many of its laughs have to come around death, albeit fictional death. In less talented hands, this type of show tends to fall on its face quite quickly, as could be noted in CSI’s repeated attempts at episodes based in humor.
Psych is generally able to skirt such issues by avoiding direct macabre humor, the sort of thing that actually makes up a good CSI episode. Where the latter falls flat, is where the former is at its best. CSI is written as a dramedy at best, more often than not it is a straight drama show with some chuckles here and there, while Psych is never unsure of itself as a comedy. CSI seems to be a part of new shows that do not bother themselves with preset rules, and like, let’s say, Scrubs, this program will often times look for experimental new styles. Turning an entire episode into a collection of the macabre humor that is barely visible in one show makes for an uninviting program that laughs at death. Psych can draw its humor from its characters and for the most part avoid that sort of black humor because of this. It is a true benefit of the show’s formatting.
Even when the show deals with dead bodies, which I believe I noted already as being nearly an every episode occurrence, we can watch Shawn and his little joking psychic routines, the knowledge of who his character really is allows the viewer to remember their disbelief perhaps and works well in dealing with the problems caused in laughing at a show that deals with death. A similar course of action can be seen in Case Closed, where the detective’s very appearance adds to the humor of the programming.
What is quite interesting about Psych is how much it depends on its own gimmick, but is not enslaved to it. Characters still interact and relationships still change, the way any active show should be, but without Spencer’s fake psychic gig, the show would become your traditional crime drama, oddly then positioned in a near duplicate status to what might be seen as its child program in The Mentalist, a show that Psych even includes in one of its own in jokes.
This all adds up quite well, but Psych perhaps fizzles once again with the Corbin Bernsen character who is Shawn’s father. Whereas one has an easier time with liking Bernsen’s “semi name actor in a small role” cousin (in his position as actor on show and not in blood), Bruce Campbell who portrays Sam Axe on Burn Notice, my view of the father Henry Spencer is a bit mixed. While the acting from Bernsen is not lacking, the main issue is just an uncertainty over whether or not his character can be liked.
Psych operates commonly through flashbacks to when our hero Shawn was a kid and time and time again we see Henry portrayed as the comical over-bearing father (perhaps that’s the wrong term), and these bits generally leave me with a sick taste in my mouth. Uncertainty creeps into my mind, because Bernsen’s character is almost always portrayed in a dark, dark light.
All in all, though, the show does a good job of working its gimmick premise to the extent that it can, both relying too much on it and being quite independent from it at times. Both James Roday and Dulé Hill (Spencer and Gus, respectively) must be credited with making the show what it is, in the end, since it is their camaraderie that truly pulls everything together.
I guess it must be noted that so far I’ve only written of USA television shows, and I’ll try to steady that out a bit. If you’ve been a true reader of this blog, then you will know that I have written about Fox’s Fringe in the past, and I would just like to add that I plan to move on to other channels’ broadcastings as well at some point. Apologies to anyone upset with my apparent network bias thus far, and as always, for boring you all the way through this post.