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Monday, July 10, 2006

Psych 101

The premiere episode of the new USA Network mystery-comedy series Psych, which ran last Friday night, was . . . pretty good. It wasn't nearly as good as the premiere of Monk a few years back—though that is a very high standard to reach. Psych was fairly amusing, and in fact LOL funny at times. The characters, however, are not very interesting, and the mystery was very weak, especially for a premiere episode. The puzzle centered on a kidmapping, but there wasn't much mystery to it, and the solution was a real cliche of the form—entirely predictable. Not a good way to begin a mystery series.

Other than James Roday's lead character, Shawn, the characters are all obvious refugees from other mystery programs: the skeptical/worried sidekick, the tediously suspicious cops, the gruff police captain (female in this case, but predictably hard-edged), the snotty suspects, etc. Shawn's relationship with his ex-cop father (played well by Corbin Bernsen, though the actor is given very little to work with) is fairly interesting, but it is left largely undeveloped. Many things about the script seem rather undeveloped, alas.

The writers did take great pains to establish exactly how the protagonist came to have such great powers of observation. That, however, may actually be something of a mistake. Usually, we don't really care why the detective is so insightful; it is enough that he or she is a genius and that we get to go along for the ride. With Monk, of course, a good deal of the fun is in watching him flounder through life while blasting through puzzling mysteries, and we appreciate the ironic truth that the very thing that makes him a great detective makes him a very unhappy person. This gives the program an inherent tension and drama, to go along with the comedy it creates. Psych attempts to recreate this aspect of Monk, but there is a big difference: whereas one feels great sympathy for Monk because of his mental problems, Shawn's continual optimism and snarkiness in Psych tend to defeat any sympathy we may wish to feel for him due to his strained relationship with his father. We know that Shawn must crave a better relationship with his father, which could make for some good drama, and comedy as well, but Roday is rather too successful at hiding it under his character's Mr. Fun persona. Shawn's blithe surface appears too often to be what he is really about—and such superficiality in a character defeats audience identification and sympathy.

When Psych finally gets into the mystery story, the program becomes more interesting, but it spends too much time trying to emulate Monk's quirkiness. That's a pity because the concept—a detective who is so insightful that he has to pretend to be a psychic in order to keep police from thinking he has actually committed the crimes he is trying to solve—is perfectly brilliant and doesn't need any additional quirkiness. The program's creators should trust the concept and cut the nonsense.

Making things even more difficult for Psych is its seemingly advantageous position following Monk. The latter program's season premiere was as excellent as we might have expected it to be. The concept—an actor playing Adrian Monk in a movie follows the obsessive detective as he attempts to solve a mystery—is the kind of thing that can be disastrously cute, and the producers managed to avoid that and present a solid mystery with the show's usual level of engaging comedy and serious moments that we have come to expect from this impressively intelligent and consistent show.


Tom Van Dyke said...

STK, I can't disagree with a word.

Psych is a fabulous idea clumsily executed. I was looking forward to it, but alas didn't make it all the way through. (The far more loyal mysteryist Mrs. TVD did, tho. She said it was OK.)

For the unconverted, if it ain't Holmes or Columbo (or of course, Monk), it's probably crap.

James Roday, the attractive young leading man, was left far too much load to carry by his largely useless supporting cast and hamhanded director and producer. He's ready, willing and game to give us a TV good time, a cross between Ricky Nelson cute and Ben Stiller's sincere/funny.


Clues glow, as if we can't see them, and his co-stars are either timidly just happy to be getting paid or auditioning for Rush Hour IX.

Now, they may all settle down. If you've ever seen the first episode of All in the Family, Maureen Stapleton didn't have her funny voice yet (although Carroll O'Connor was already perfectly dialed in).

And the children shall lead them. Seldom is the ingenue more than window-dressing, but my hat's off to James Roday. He showed 'em all how it's done. Maybe they'll all catch up. Be Here Now.

Hunter Baker said...

As I stated earlier, I've been reading Nero Wolfe stories again and have had a few thoughts about it. One of those thoughts is that the Wolfe stories should be updated to a modern setting. I think it could be done and that it would really work. I view Monk as a bit of a Wolfe update, but I'd like to see something closer to the original thought.