Psych: “The Break-Up”
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Psych: “The Break-Up”

The show ran its course… then lingered a few more years

Almost five years later, it’s kind of incredible to think that Monk, USA’s longest-running original series (non-WWE Division) had over 9 million viewers for its finale, almost double its usual ratings over eight seasons. In contrast, Psych’s viewership has been slowly but consistently declining for years. With expensive flights of stylistic fancy like a musical special, a Clue reunion, and many other homage episodes, it’s clear that narratively speaking, creator Steve Franks, star James Roday, and the rest of the cast had simply run out of places to go. The series has mostly been running in place the past few years, so eight seasons and over 100 episodes is a good place to call it a day.

That impending end point—extended by USA ordering a few extra scripts, including a bonus one voted on by fans of the show—gave Franks some much-needed urgency to craft final arcs for each of the major characters. Most of the season-long stories, outside of the weekly cases, dealt with some kind of existential or professional crisis. More than a few big life decisions or events punctuate the season, and though they do feel contrived and perfunctory, it’s a relief for all the teased out potential to finally get a place to rest. All of this makes for what is probably the best overall season of the show since the Shawn/Juliet will they/won’t they drama dissipated in “Yang 3 In 2D,” with plenty of fan and cast wish-fulfillment, but slightly sabotaged by a few of the absolute worst episodes in four years.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Kirsten Nelson (Chief Karen Vick) directed the best episode of the season, “1967: A Psych Odyssey,” a pulp crime throwback set in the 1960’s. Getting Anthony Michael Hall’s interim chief ousted didn’t take long—just a hostage situation between Woody and a former criminal played by Peter Stormare. But Vick snags a new job in San Francisco, leaving the Santa Barbara position open for Lassiter to audition. The episode was Nelson’s first time helming for television (she previously directed one short film), and it’s a hoot, thanks to the regular players subbing in as the major roles in a cold case. Dule Hill even gets to sing again, and he’s typically fantastic.

“Remake A.K.A Cloudy… With A Chance Of Improvement” was the giant stinker of an episode in the season’s first half. A re-do of first season episode “Cloudy… With A Chance Of Improvement,” the episode doesn’t change much of the underlying premise—Shawn and Gus help out a feckless attorney out of his depth in a murder defense. Instead adding a few more guest stars, some old and some new, including Lindsay Sloane, Alan Ruck, and Ralph Macchio. Literally repeating an episode with only minor cosmetic changes that do little to actually improve an episode proves both how effective the Psych episodic formula has been for years, and how deep the rut is now. Fans voted on one of three possible bonus scripts, and this season still contains an episode largely copied from the first season.

But aside from the episode highlights and disasters, the main focus of Psych’s final season is rounding up everyone to show a final plateau within the series’ scope, before suggesting a possible future. As Detective Lassiter, Timothy Omudson has always been the gruff counterbalance that almost complements Shawn’s attention hog. This final season gave Lassie a few bum notes to play—mostly in the second episode, where the revelation that his wife Marlowe is pregnant briefly sends him into a confidence tailspin, worried that he needs to protect himself and be around for his child. But once he wins the new Chief job, he’s basically the same guy in relation to Shawn and Gus—as an episode with Tom Arnold and Yvette Nicole Brown as other paranormal consultants explores. His goal has always been simple: to have a family and the top job in his field, and now that he’s achieved it, he’s settled and happy.

Corbin Bernsen’s Henry feels the golden years slipping by, and decides to sell the family home—to Lassiter and Marlowe no less. He’s finally given up completely on the miniscule hope that Shawn’s mom would return for good, dealt with the trauma of getting shot by a friend, and left the force behind. He accidently stumbles into a criminology course, taking over for another friend, only to find it was supposed to be online. It’s just like Psych to mine humor out of Henry then turning a would-be blowoff class into something that inspires four lethargic students thanks to an impromptu road block and citizen’s arrest to end a car chase. Psych made the transition from using the father/son lessons as a consistent guide at the beginning of each episode a long time ago, which rendered Bernsen a less vital element on the show. Unlike most of the other characters, his emotional arc shares an episode with the birth of Lassiter’s child—jammed into an ill-conceived case that takes advantage of the food truck zeitgeist.

So Lassiter arrives at a peaceful place with a new house, a new job, and a new baby. Karen takes a new, more prestigious job in a new city. Henry has a professional second act lined up. Juliet makes a tough but necessary move for her career. Gus finally quits his job. Even McNab gets a bump to a place he probably doesn’t belong. Psych moved down a checklist to give everyone a satisfying endpoint.

The most important of those, at least from a fan perspective, is Dule Hill’s Burton Guster. He’s always been the best character on Psych, not as cloying as Shawn, and not abandoned with little material to work with like Juliet. Hill’s a gifted comic performer, both in witty repartee with Shawn and in slapstick physical gags. So it makes sense that the best episodes of the season that focus on inevitable change center on Gus. In “Cog Blocked,” Gus feels the sting of a case where the victim has a life eerily similar to his own. A dead-end job in an insurance office (as opposed to his pharmaceutical job), no family, nothing of substance left behind. It’s the existential kick in the ass he needs to shift into a higher gear, put Shawn in the investigative backseat for once, and forge a promising connection with another private detective (Kali Hawk). That culminates in one of the most rewarding moments in Psych history, as Gus finally quits his job (but for some reason abandoning over 100 paid vacation days) and resolves to find something better.

But as with too many episodes of Psych, it immediately squanders that progress to keep Gus boxed into his anxiety. People don’t change in seismic shifts, especially as they get older and settle into a specialty, no matter how mundane. Instead of continuing down that path to professional satisfaction, Gus instead has another episode of crippling self-doubt, this time over Shawn. The fan-picked extra script was last week’s penultimate episode, a horror and zombie-movie homage with Bruce Campbell as Gus’ only moderately effective dream therapist, investigating all of his fears about all the people around the Psych agency taking significant life steps.

Shawn and Gus share a lot of emotional similarities with JD and Turk on Scrubs, from a certain rhythm when in conversation to an affinity for a very specific set of pop culture touchstones. (The biggest cameo payoff of the season is a surprise finale drop-in by someone who played Batman, frequently mentioned as one of Roday’s idols.) But when Scrubs ended (before its tangentially-related “final” season), it allowed JD to keep his friendship with Turk, always knowing it would remain close but not quite the same as they focused on their respective families, while still moving a short distance away. Psych doesn’t allow for the central partnership to grow or change like that.

The series finale is basically just the final season in microcosm, checking in with the progress of each major character, with the question of how Shawn will tell Gus about an impending movie to be with Juliet. And the best moment doesn’t even involve Gus or Juliet—it’s a moment between Shawn and Lassiter where the latter makes a key, surprisingly poignant decision about the decision that set the entire series in motion.

Which leaves the most problematic relationship on the show: Shawn and Juliet. Psych squeezed five seasons out of bringing these two characters together, and then never did much but show how manipulative Shawn could be as a serious boyfriend. Maggie Lawson deserved better material as Juliet, and as a smart detective worthy of the promotion she got halfway through the season, not recognizing how much Shawn holds her back. No part of Roday’s performance or the writing in any episode this season makes Shawn out to be a lovable, caring, generous person. He appears to have fondness for Gus, Juliet, Henry, and even Lassiter, but it’s always secondary to his selfish and narcissistic impulses, mostly his need to nab credit for cases, live in the spotlight, and get his way.

The most emotional moment of the season was Juliet’s conversation with Lassiter over his promotion to chief, and her subsequent decision to leave for San Francisco without saying goodbye to Shawn, which was then undercut by subsequent scenes of the couple trying long distance. The series ends on a note where Shawn gets to win without changing—in a way he fails upwards into a better life—and gets to keep the most important people in his life. Many series end on life-changing moments—births, marriage proposals, moving to a new city to start a new life—that leave the location of the series behind. But unlike shows like Scrubs, which emphasized a male friendship based on quirky comedy while still developing the supporting female characters, Psych left Juliet underdeveloped and underserved. That’s especially important when she’s a big part of the series’ final scene, which would have far more emotional impact if Shawn had at some point in the last three seasons apologized for lying to her and actually earned her love as an equal. In catering to central comedic partnership of the show, Psych did the rest of the characters a disservice by cheapening their actualized progress with Shawn’s perpetual arrested development.

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