Back with a new movie, the zany ‘Psych’ TV show is still more believable than any real-world psychic detective.
Just past 4:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon in October, the Javits Center in New York City shook with cries of “Suck it again!” emanating from the main stage area — and nobody was all that surprised. After all, it was New York Comic-Con, and for that hour the stage belonged to the reunited cast of USA’s Psych TV show, one of our most enduring modern dramedies. Where Psych goes, hilarity and unhinged behavior often follow, and the panelists’ spirits were particularly high. They’d just announced that Psych: The Movie, a two-hour television event, would premiere on December 7 on USA.
Those unfamiliar with the show will be forgiven for any bewilderment when trying to parse the air of glee surrounding the announcement. Spanning seven seasons between 2006 and 2013, Psych followed the adventures of Shawn Spencer (James Roday) and his best friend Burton “Gus” Gusterson (Dule Hill) as the wacky duo solved dozens of mysteries in the Santa Barbara area. Shawn is a slothful 30something who can’t hold a job despite his sharp eye for detail, a skill honed since childhood thanks to his father, a former police detective (played by Corbin Bernsen). Caught in a sticky situation with the law, Shawn pretends to be a psychic — a claim that raises the eyebrows of Detective Lassiter (Timothy Odmundson) but earns Shawn a consultant gig with the police department. Roping Gus into his new scheme, Shawn opens the Psych Agency and begins solving mysteries under the pretense of having supernatural abilities.
If Psych’s premise sounds ludicrous, think again. A 1993 study published in Skeptical Inquiry noted that of the 50 largest police departments in the United States, about one-third had consulted a psychic investigator for help on an open case. Even the federal government has delved into psychic law enforcement; the CIA ran a classified project called StarGate for nearly two decades, hiring psychics during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis who were reportedly able to ascertain information about hostages’ health. StarGate’s director, Dr. Edwin May, is still involved with studies on extrasensory perception, or ESP. In 1998, the Department of Justice composed a document titled “Use of Psychics in Law Enforcement,” detailing official police guidelines for contacting, selecting and working with psychics.
But much like Detective Lassiter, authorities today aren’t as enthusiastic about psychic consultations as they once were. The CIA shuttered StarGate in 1995, after May’s influence was deemed excessive and his program of no concrete value. Since then, psychics have faced mounting skepticism, their influence over law enforcement limited to calling up tip lines (much like Shawn in the Psych TV show pilot). Colorado medium Troy Griffin claims that although his visions have a roughly one-in-five success rate, he’s lucky if police give him a “50-50” shot. Instead of going through official channels like Shawn and Gus, Griffin reaches out to families of missing persons directly in his attempts to help them gain closure.
That help isn’t always welcome. In 2004 the now-infamous Sylvia Browne claimed during an appearance on The Montel Williams Show that missing Ohio teen Amanda Berry was dead; more than a decade after her capture, Berry would escape and be reunited with her family, who had given up hope due to Browne’s prediction. (Her return coincided with the year Psych went off the air.) That dismal failure turned legions of Browne’s followers against her, further tarnishing the repute of psychic investigations.
And although Griffin offers his detective services pro bono, not all of his contemporaries are so magnanimous — and many hold qualifications more dubious than Shawn’s most outlandish claims.
Small wonder, then, that more families latch on to TV psychics like Shawn Spencer than to psychics in the real world. In fact, the Psych TV show is something of a family affair itself. Bolstered by six licensed books and a musical special that aired in 2014, the show’s penchant for mystery, comedic shenanigans, wordplay and heartfelt drama have engendered a love in its fans unheard of in similar fandoms. Speaking to the NYCC crowd, Bernsen said plainly, “I feel like you guys are part of the family.” The playfully PG-13 chorus (a reference to one of the show’s many running gags, like Shawn’s absurd aliases for Gus) was led by series regular Maggie Lawson, who wanted to send a greeting to the ailing Timothy Odmundsen. His wasn’t the only absent face; series star James Roday called for a moment of silence to pay homage to Terry Goldman, the show’s longtime social media guru who had died just a week before.
But though their family grieved, the assembled Psych-Os weren’t at a funeral. If anything, the panel became something of a wake, celebrating the legacy of a unique piece of entertainment while looking to the future. The cast hyped returning guest star John Cena, reminisced over their favorite moments from the series (asked by a young fan for his favorite Gus alias, Roday claimed at the moment it was Lavender Gooms) and marveled at the show’s continued popularity via streaming services and DVD.
Psych has brought its family a decade of laughs, chills and tears — a far better success rate than Griffin, Browne or any of their peers. But though it may seem like the paranormal is only good for entertainment value, many like May still hold out real faith in the powers and promise of psychic phenomena. Is it all hogwash, or do the rare successes of psychics point to a glimmer of truth? Who’s on the right track? As Shawn might say, “I’ve heard it both ways.”