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'Psych' crack viewers up while cracking a mystery

| Monday, July 16, 2007

Forget forensics: Collecting clues and catching crooks should be a blast, not a bore.

"You get so overloaded on the microscope, and that's not much fun" says Steve Franks, who dreamed up USA Network's "Psych" to prove that solving prime-time crimes can be a romp rather than a rehash of grim reality.

"Psych," which began its second season Friday, features a witty sleuth who uncovers the truth without relying on DNA -- much like "Monk," Tony Shalhoub's eclectic but quirkily successful detective.

"What 'Monk' does so well is start with an impossible crime -- and he solves it," says Franks, a devotee of lighter detective fare such as "Magnum, P.I.," "Columbo," and "Moonlighting." "We try to do a cool crime -- the police photographer did it, or murder at a competitive eating competition -- with a fun hook. Then we make it a legitimate mystery and lay out these clues."

"Psych's" premise is built on a pretense: Shawn Spencer (James Roday) is a sharply observant slacker, drilled since childhood by his police officer father (Corbin Bernsen) to absorb everything about his surroundings. Now he's got a knack for noticing key details often overlooked by police investigators: a stain, an out-of-place photo, a piece of jewelry, a tire track. To explain his prowess, Shawn tells people, "I'm a psychic."

And almost everyone believes him, including detectives on the Santa Barbara, Calif., police force, who ask for his help on baffling cases. With creative bluffs -- pretending to channel a cat that witnessed a murder, posing as a planetarium employee -- and coincidental luck, Shawn keeps up the ruse. Viewers can follow the trail of clues, too: When Shawn zeroes in on an object, it lights up.

"This is a guy who makes stuff up as he goes along, so I can sort of organically justify doing a lot of ad-libbing," says Roday, whose character parlayed a single successful case into a detective agency complete with a beachfront office.

"He is Peter Pan, this puckish dude who's going to try to stay a kid as long as possible," Roday says of his character. "The challenge is, how do you keep an adult who acts like a child interesting and likable?"

Glimpses of the youthful Shawn and his childhood best friend, Gus (Dule Hill), now his crime-solving partner, are seen in flashbacks that open each episode. The vignettes, whether a school field trip to the zoo or a backyard game of Battleship, drop hints of what's ahead. The show also includes nods to popular culture: Last week's episode centered on a Simon Cowell-like talent show judge under siege from an unknown assailant. To protect him, Shawn and Gus go undercover as aspiring, but dreadful, singers.

"We're living out a fantasy, two guys who have no training as detectives, working as detectives," Hill says. His character is actually in pharmaceutical sales -- "Gus is putting in the minimum of time just to keep his health insurance" -- and he tries to be the voice of reason for his pseudo-psychic business partner. But Gus is finally starting to loosen up and enjoy the ride.

"We go to racetracks and spelling bees and look for dinosaurs," Hill says. "If the cases weren't so much fun, we wouldn't keep doing this."

Show creator Franks, who wrote and performed "Psych's" theme song with his rock band, Friendly Indians, says the fun that infuses the on-air product is evident behind the scenes, too. That fun, he says, is key to the production's success.

Roday, who picks the strange but popular "Twin Peaks" as his favorite TV show growing up, says "Psych" tips its hat to police procedural shows.

"But at the same time," he says, "isn't it ridiculous that there are so many of them, and they all solve crimes the same way• We don't take ourselves so seriously."

Maggie Lawson, whose Detective Juliet O'Hara is always eager to help Shawn along with his "visions," likens the series to "Moonlighting," the banter-filled 1980s detective comedy.

"It encapsulates a lot of different worlds, and there is great chemistry, " says Lawson, who portrayed Nancy Drew in a 2002 TV movie. "It's kind of nice to do a show that is serious and mysterious and silly all at the same time."

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