Pulp Consumption: Psych



One aspect of pulp both Matt and I haven’t really touched upon is humor. Pulp is often thought of as being a serious genre, and since so much of it is focused on grit, violence, and noir that makes a certain amount of sense. But even the noirest stories often included humor, and some stories published in magazines like Amazing Stories were definitely funny. It’s in this spirit I’d like to discuss the USA Network TV show Psych.

The show centers around main character Shawn Spencer (played by James Roday), who uses his keen sense of observation, eidetic memory recall, and pure intelligence to solve cases as a consulting detective, sort of like Sherlock Holmes. He was raised by his father, Santa Barbara police detective Henry (Corbin Bernsen), to exercise these elements of his mental capacity in the hopes he’d become a police officer as well, but Shawn didn’t want the restrictions that carrying handcuffs comes with, so he became a fake psychic instead.

The show is also of the buddy cop genre, with Shawn’s best friend since childhood, Gus (Dulé Hill), filling in the roll of best friend and coworker. Gus and Henry are the only two who know full well Shawn’s psychic readings are fake, but they frequently enable him because so much of what he does actually closes difficult cases.

The mid-2000s saw another show with a similar principle, The Mentalist, also on the air, but the latter is played straight and often lampooned by Psych. I think it’s mostly unfair criticism on the part of Psych’s creators, especially since I also enjoyed The Mentalist, but the humor in Psych is why I prefer it. The humor also makes it easier to binge watch, especially if there are children in the house. Shawn is a perpetual screw-up, and Gus and he are almost always in over their heads, frequently because of Shawn’s juvenile attitude and his relentless laziness, which often causes him to jump to incorrect conclusions based on just a few bits of evidence. That said if it weren’t for Shawn’s mistakes at first many of the cases he’s brought in on would likely go unsolved.

From a pulp standpoint the only thing really separating Psych from straight detective fiction is the tone. The kinds of murders and missing persons cases Shawn gets called in to help with are the same sorts as those Holmes, The Continental Op, The Shadow, and Perry Mason are all brought in on. The methods Shawn uses, his perfect recall, keen observations, deductive reasoning, and simply stumbling into answers are also the same. He operates with but outside the law, frequently resorting to breaking and entering and other such petty crimes.

For a long-running episodic television property it’s to be expected that there are hits and misses, but the show was popular enough the network greenlit a new movie which aired just a couple weeks ago, three years after the show’s cancellation. Apparently there are plans for more self-contained films in the future.

If you like crime fiction pulp but don’t necessarily always want the boundless pessimism noir tends to offer, then give Psych a watch. It’s on Amazon Prime Video now, so many of you have no excuses.

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