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Saturday, April 14, 2012

'Psych' flirts with greatness in season finale

USA's Psych season finale this week is called "Santabarbaratown." Playing with the plot of the movie Chinatown, "Santabarbaratown" finds Henry (Corbin Bernsen) going back on active duty as a detective when a cold case he worked years ago reopens. What may have kept the case from being solved before is a conspiracy involving Henry's old co-workers. Through it all, Henry's son, Shawn (James Roday), struggles with the relationship between father and son. And then Henry is shot, changing everything.

Psych is a great as a comedy version of the crime procedural, that often throws in some really neat, creative stories. But "Santabarbaratown" is different. Movie parody aside, the stakes are higher here. Shawn wrestles with his self-identity, and the image he has of his father. He also faces a maturing romantic relationship. In short, it's a much-delayed coming of age episode for the central character of the series.

Is it time for Shawn to grow up? One could argue that without Shawn and Gus's (Dulé Hill) zany antics, Psych wouldn't be Psych. And that's true. There is a level of humor here not found in the many other similar shows on television, and the comedy is done very well. But verging into dramatic territory has never been a bad thing for the series, and taking itself a little more seriously could lead to some welcome growth.

Shawn's arrested development has been wearing off for a few seasons. One cannot be a full-grown man-child forever, and still be happy and successful in life. Shawn's romance with Juliet (Maggie Lawson) can be credited for much of this shift. Shawn has to really deal with emotions, and look inside himself. And it's working. He's slowly growing up. He's fun, but that's not all there is to him. At the end of "Santabarbaratown," as Shawn and Juliet agree to an arrangement that sounds like moving in together, or the first step towards it, viewers may be struck by how far Shawn has come, even if he still has a ways to go.

Even more importantly, "Santabarbaratown" forces Shawn to look at his father as a person. Shawn has long idolized Henry, as hard a time as he gives him, and his hero worship is called into question when the naughty activities of Henry's friends are exposed. Henry emerges unscathed because he really is the man that Shawn has built him up to be. But, perhaps surprisingly, Henry gives Shawn credit for what he has made of himself. As Shawn remembers how he always wanted to be a cop like his father, it's suddenly clear that Henry might see Shawn as such now, and not without good reason.

Henry being shot at the end of "Santabarbaratown" is a potential game changer. Henry will probably be fine, and Psych will resume the inane formula that makes it so good. But ponder a second path. What if Henry dies? Wouldn't that make a heck of a final season, with Shawn struggling to live up to the image of his father, and really facing mortality for the first time? Not that Bernsen wouldn't be missed greatly; he's an essential element of the show. But he could also play a vital role without being on screen much, and the commonly used flashbacks would mean so much more knowing that Henry only lives on in them now.

This would really only be effective should next season be announced as the last one for Psych. But it would raise the series to a whole new level, and make for a truly memorable arc. Too bad it's so unlikely to happen. Psych is always entertaining. Might it consider being something more than that?

Psych will return to USA next fall.

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