Story Pile: Psych

I almost did this as a Sherlock Holmes thing earlier in the year.

Psych is a TV series that is still? Kind of? Technically? Ongoing? It started in 2006, and in the first episode, Shawn is excited to maybe get his hand on some free CD Wallets, while in the most recent 2021 movie (This Is Gus), they suggest someone change her name from ‘Karen,’ because of the meme. It follows Shawn, a modern day Sherlock Holmes who has tuned the ‘easily bored smug dickhead’ dials all the way up, and sets him and his best friend Gus, a longsuffering niche pharmaceutical sales representative and probably iconic blerd?, in a new shared task of running a detective agency, which solves…? Crimes?

Oh and the gimmick is they pretend Shawn is a psychic.

Because that gives them a legitimacy that they don’t have by default.

You know, like real psychics.

Low key, this is the thing that I found the most interesting about the pitch of this series; it’s about how cops are so bad at being cops that they will turn to outside sources to help them solve things, and those things are nonsense. And the nature of power, and the way power is concentrated in our society, is such that The Police, a serious institution with the Serious Job of Seriously Engaging with Serious Crimes, have means to accept the help of psychics before they have means to accept the input of ordinary people who are just good at the things police think they shouldn’t be good at.

The whole series starts with that premise: Police are bad at their job, and when they encounter someone good at their job, they assume that must be for illegitimate reasons.

Psych is extremely a show from 2006 to now. I tend to watch TV shows and check for the phones, seeing when the flip cellphone gives way to the touch phone, and like, Psych opens with Shawn using a portable phone in his apartment. The computers on desks are big square boxes that connect to narrow towers on the ground, photographs and security footage is sketchy and ropy, and ‘the internet’ and ‘comic books’ are things over there that you have to go and investigate, as opposed to the enmeshed cyberpunk now that you didn’t even notice creep up on you.

During the early 2000s, the particular model of ‘one hour TV show entertainment’ was dominated by the presence of the series CSI, an absolutely dire-in-hindsight narrative that tried to make the nerdy task of comprehensively gathering evidence from crime scenes then collating that into the knockout punch that decidedly proved guilt and solved murders. CSI did this by a very simple formula, where its ‘nerdy’ characters who weren’t really very nerdy at all, just aloof and expert would encounter some crime scene with something weird about it, then the exploration of that weirdness resulted in an episode where they had to try and learn about a weird subculture in Las Vegas. It’s not uncommon to point to the ‘Furry Episode’ but they did episodes about train collectors, about farbs, about card game collectors, about scrabble players, and of course, multiple times, The Whacky Transgenders.

Let me be clear, CSI handles trans characters dreadfully. It’s vile the way they talk about these characters while they’re alive (ACAB) and it’s even worse the way they talk about them once they’re dead; lots of phrenology about hips and whatnot. And this is kind of how they talk about pretty much any subculture. This formula, though, of finding ‘subgroup of people with their own priorities, rules, and communal language,’ and draw drama/comedy/tension out of learning about them, served for a lot of different TV series in the period, and I think it’s not unfair to compare Psych to this formula.

Which I guess is as good a time to tear off the bandaid here: Psych does a trans episode pretty early on, in Season 1, Episode 7, so I guess… spoilers? Oh you don’t care. Anyway, in that episode, the murderer is revealed to be an alternate personality of a cis man and trans woman — basically, in body A, there’s personalities 1, 2, and 3. 1 is a fairly unremarkable dude who introduces the ideas, 2 is a trans woman who’s seeing a therapist, and 3 is a vicious murderer who is killing people to protect himself from the gender reassignment surgery 2 is trying to get. This is obviously a fantastically bad look, where a trans woman gets to exist in a narrative as part of a ‘murderous weirdo’ plot.

It actually touches on the edge of a really good, obvious point: Imagine being forced to live as a gender you’re not. Why, you’d fight for that, you’d even kill to protect yourself, right? That’s what the trans woman in this character is having to deal with, and she’s not killing anyone.

Alas, this point is largely missed, and the character is a clear association between ‘the transgenders’ and ‘mentally unwell weirdoes.’ I give it points for having a therapist who clearly treats the trans woman in question with respect, and for our protagonists to seemingly largely treat the whole situation respectfully, but man, that’s not enough to compensate for ‘oh, them transes, they’ll kill you,’ and ‘imagine the horror of being trans sometimes.’

It stinks!

This CSI formula of ‘let’s talk about this subculture’ in the first season alone takes us to meet historical re-enactors, spelling bee competitors (with a shout out to perp walking a cheater to a police car, ACAB), comic book conventions, tap dancers and alien abduction conspiracists. This has the same hit-and-miss effect of CSI, but because Gus is often into these things, it means it’s a bit less meanspirited than you usually get when CSI decides the newest type of people to gawp at is, like, Hasidic Gunpla Enthusiasts. Similar formula, but less bitter.

In total, Psych is a police procedural, a Sherlock Holmes meets Millenial Murder She Wrote, built around a character dynamic of two people who are both extremely good friends and good at bouncing into one another as part of a scene. It’s fun. It’s the same show episode to episode (mostly), with some seasonal shake-ups and some wear from being a show that ran for so long, actors coming and going, you know how it is.

Another way the show is a Show From The 2000s is the way it’s episodic. You may not remember this since we’ve been marinating in bingeville forever, but Psych is a show where every episode, you get more or less exactly what you would have gotten in any other episode. No long term myth arc, no greater meta plot (necessarily, though there are relationships that change over time). Characters vary a little day to day but they are all still more or less the same people as when they started, and that’s… the point?

You’re meant to want to watch an episode of Psych because you like episodes of Psych and it’s gunna give you an episode of Psych. On average, an episode you haven’t watched already. And from what I’ve seen in what I’ve watched, on average, these episdoes are… pretty good! Like, the whole thing is built out of Pretty Good Television, with a lot less of the same mock-and-gawp of the shows that are built out of the same model.

Does seem weird how it feels about models, though.

Anyway, all cops are bad.

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