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At the start of Psych’s fifth season premiere, it looks for a moment like things might be changing for Shawn and Gus (James Roday and Dulé Hill) and their “psychic” detective agency. Shawn’s dad (Corbin Bernsen) is now working for the police department. Juliet (Maggie Lawson), their friend on the police force, has transferred away thanks to leftover trauma from the season four finale and Shawn’s girlfriend from last season, is officially out of the picture. There's even a brand new credits sequence.
It only takes a few minutes, however, for it to become apparent that the Psych universe will proceed much as it has over the past four years. Any worries that Shawn’s Dad’s new job would mean the boys were officially part of the police force are quickly dispelled. If anything, he’s more against their involvement than anyone else in the department (which begs the question: Exactly, how many cases do Shawn and Gus need to solve before they finally earn a little respect?). Juliet, even though she’s working in an entirely different station, is as much a part of the investigation as ever. By episode’s end, in fact, she’s officially back to her old job. The credits are definitely new, though.
So what we’re left with, credits aside, is the same show we’ve always had, which could be either a good or a bad thing depending on your viewpoint. Shawn and Gus will worm their way into an investigation the police don’t want them on. Shawn will put his hand on his head, pretending to receive psychic visions when really he’s just using his keen powers of observation. Shawn and Gus will spend as much time bickering and making pop culture references as they do analyzing clues. And the case will be tidily wrapped up at hour’s end.
The mystery this week involves the team trying to track down the kidnapped daughter of the head of one of two rival Chinese gangs. It’s hardly the toughest case to figure out (hint: the episode’s title gives the kidnapper’s motive away) and it takes itself a bit too seriously for a show about a fake psychic detective. But it does give the opportunity for Shawn to get his butt kicked, whilst attempting to take on an opponent using Kung Fu (or Wushu, as Gus insists on defining their fighting style as). The episode’s best bit of physical comedy involves Shawn and Gus taking on a karate master using household cleaning supplies.
The main surprise of the martial arts plotline on a pop culture-obsessed (specifically 1980s pop culture-obsessed) show such as Psych, comes from the perplexing lack of callbacks to The Karate Kid. Shawn makes one half-hearted attempt at a crane kick, but that is all we’re given. Ralph Macchio doesn’t even garner a mention. I expect more from this series.
But while the episode’s plot is hardly the most compelling the show’s ever had, the back-and-forth between Roday and Hill, always the strongest part of Psych, is as good as ever. Unsurprisingly, they rely on jokes they’ve used many times before, such as Shawn’s habit of coming up with ridiculous pseudonyms at a moment’s notice. But, perhaps a little more surprisingly, the jokes still work. The biggest laugh of the episode comes when Shawn introduces himself and Gus both as “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and then goes on to complain about all the people shouting. Also still strong is the relationship between Shawn and his Dad and it’s always fun to get moments where we see the origins of Shawn’s craziness. Here we get a mention of how Dad used to hide the family Easter Eggs fifteen feet under ground, all in order to challenge his eight-year-old son.
As the series enters a half-decade on the air, the creative team behind it show little signs of messing with the formula that has worked so well for them. While this might be comforting to some fans, it does raise questions about just how much longer Psych can last. Some evolution is inevitable, such as further development of the long-brewing romantic tension between Shawn and Juliet. But it remains to be seen just how much this will actually shake up the show. Even without much change, as long as Roday and Hill are able to wring laughs out of their situations, as they are here, it should be enough. Sometimes, however, I just wish they’d stretch things a little more.