By Ray Richmond
Bottom line: A clever private eye romp that wittily illustrates the unheralded virtues of slackerdom.
Friday, July 7
I watched the pilot for the lighthearted new USA Network hour "Psych" not quite sure how I felt about its star James Roday, who portrays a slacker with phenomenal powers of observation masquerading as a psychic. It took me awhile to decide whether he was annoying or the second coming of Bruce Willis. So I watched the 90-minute pilot again and realized that Roday and his show are indeed cool. Viewers are thus advised to give "Psych" time to grow on them. Like the consistently endearing "Monk," the show that precedes it on USA's Friday night slate, this one supplies a fresh, quirky take on the detective genre. It takes itself seriously pretty much not at all, which is precisely what we want at 10 p.m. on a summer Friday. Once you lock into Roday's sassy, wisecracking rhythm, it dawns on you that this is how it felt when we first laid eyes on that guy who rose to fame in a little series titled "Moonlighting."
Indeed, the "Moonlighting" analogy is hardly accidental. Executive producer Steve Franks has talked about how he used to hang out on the set of that iconic 1980s hour with his cop father, who worked security on the show. He considers "Psych" to be "Moonlighting" with two best friends. While this show has a long way to go before real comparisons between the two are justified, it embodies a similarly breezy, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue rhythm (with Roday's alter ego Shawn Spencer subbing for Willis' sassy jokemeister David Addison). Not that there is any sign of Cybill Shepherd to be found here. In this case, the incredulous straight-woman sidekick is instead a man: Dule Hill, late of "The West Wing," who plays Shawn's brainy but reluctant best friend Gus Guster.
As "Psych" opens, it is quickly established that Shawn is greatly stifled by Peter Pan Syndrome, creeping into adulthood as a maturity-challenged man-child without a pot to urinate in. This greatly disgusts his gruff, tough-love cop daddy Henry (Corbin Bernsen) whom we see drilling Shawn from childhood onward in feats of observation. But because his boy had his development arrested at roughly age 15, father and son are now officially estranged. Shawn uses his uncanny gift to call in endless tips to the cops because no clue escapes his razor-sharp gaze. But it doesn't do much to pad his bank account.
So anyway, Shawn goes too far and gets dragged into a real case as a suspect, forcing him to play the psychic card. The problem is, he has no actual clairvoyant abilities. He can't read the future, only crime scenes. But hey, it's a living. By the end of the opener, Shawn will have hung out a shingle as a (phony) law enforcement spiritualist, with Gus pulled along to accompany him in his crazy schemes.
The premiere, penned by executive producer Franks, strides along with wit and charm to spare, aided by Michael Engler's able direction. A device wherein objects regularly light up to signify Shawn's analytic gaze seems a little forced initially but winds up working well. As for Roday, he dives right into a role that's something of an actor's dream. He convinces us that his character has the smarts and charisma to hoodwink the world (most of it, anyway), and if "Psych" flies as it should, we're no doubt looking at the birth of a star.