On Narcissism, Comedy, and Why I Loved “Psych” In Spite of Shawn Spencer

colorful-pineapple-21585578“Psych,” is a cable comedy about a Sherlock Holmesian son of a cop. It recently aired its series finale. In the show, Shawn Spencer uses his carefully crafted powers of observation to work as a “psychic” consultant for the Santa Barbara Police Department. He pretends to be psychic because he really IS a good detective. Lots of hijinx, near murder, and one-upping the credentialed detectives ensue.

What most interests me about my love for “Psych,” which I first discovered on Netflix, is how much I enjoy the show, even love it, despite my loathing for Shawn.

Nothing against the actor…. James Roday is great in the role, and his performance goes a LONG way to making Shawn stomachable. Shawn is, in many ways, a caricature of a self-absorbed, selfish, narcissistic personality. And yet, I number “Psych” among my favorite shows.

Why?

As a writer, I ask myself that question because it holds some clues into character development. And it’s a topic I’ve discussed before: how to make readers care about unpleasant characters, or at least how to get them to keep reading.

Because of that, here are a few thoughts on why I faithfully binged “Psych” despite hating much of who Shawn Spencer is.

  1. He is a CARICATURE of a narcissist.

This means that in the context of the show, his narcissistic actions don’t have the detrimental, even disastrous, results on the lives of other people that would occur in real life. Because the writers rein in the ramifications of his egotism, it becomes easier to overlook when he starts complaining yet again about how this or that will affect HIM, effectively ignoring everyone else.

  1. Shawn’s backstory is brilliant!!!

The show, especially in the first few critical episodes, doesn’t focus just on Shawn in the present. It focuses just as much on how Shawn became so observant and developed such a photographic memory. This brings his retired-cop father, Henry, into play.

I watch tv and read books not just for entertainment, but to research, contemplate, and better understand the human condition. “Psych” allowed me to do this mainly through the only realistic relationship on the show, that of Shawn and Henry. It helped engage me that this relationship is front and center at the very start of the show’s major story arc.

Shawn is an egoist, but Henry comes to understand that he tried to make Shawn into something he wasn’t, rather mercilessly at times, and accepts his share of the blame for their lacking relationship. Shawn was never meant to follow his dad’s footsteps as a cop, though Henry desperately wanted that and tried to force Shawn into that role.

One of the iconic “Psych” scenes is Henry with child-Shawn, eating in a diner. Henry tells him, “Close your eyes.” Shawn does so. Then Henry asks, “How many hats are in the room?” Shawn protests at first, but then gives a dutiful and correct response. (There is even a nod to this memorable moment in the series finale, and I loved it!)

To see where Shawn came from and the utter humanity of his father, as grueling a training as he did give Shawn, helped me to like Shawn more. Basically, I ended up liking Shawn at all only because I appreciated Henry, and Henry sees a lot of gifts and good in Shawn.

  1. The writers make it clear that they know Shawn is obnoxious and egoistic, because the other characters react accordingly.

This is HUGE. I’ve written a post about when it’s important to let readers know that you understand and share their frustration with a character. One major way to do that is through the actions, dialogue, and responses of other characters in regards to the offender.

(Spoiler alert for following paragraph).

Shawn’s father, best friend Gus, significant others, and coworkers (Lassiter) all remark on how Shawn acts entitled and is selfish. Repeatedly. Juliet, his main romantic interest, breaks up with him more than once. He and his father Henry have a realistically strained relationship. His best friend is always calling him out. Detective Lassiter HATES him at first, as anyone would.

  1. Shawn’s supporting cast makes up for what is lacking in him

This is vital when your main character is as flawed and off-putting as Shawn can be. My favorite characters on the show are Henry, Gus, and Lassiter.
Gus is Shawn’s best friend and is as sensitive and likeable as Shawn is selfish. The running gag about Gus’s fantastic sense of smell, his “super sniffer,” carries well through all eight seasons.

Detective Lassiter is just hilarious as the “bumbling but well-meaning cop.” He is pretentious, but in a very different way than Shawn, and is more intelligent and warm-hearted than he first appears. Lassiter is one of the few characters on Psych who has true depth to him. (Henry is another. And to a lesser extent, Gus.)

“Lassie” has a hard exterior and shells himself off, but once you get through that shell you learn he would move heaven and earth for the people he cares about. It’s a running gag that his talent and work are underappreciated, and he learns to handle that with a tangible degree of genuine humility. I found myself rooting for Lassie to find himself as much as I rooted for him to get the bad guy.

So, those are the reasons I enjoyed watching “Psych” despite Shawn Spencer. I don’t know if any held more weight than others, but working together, the quality and spirit of the show made up for what digusted me in Shawn.

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3 responses to “On Narcissism, Comedy, and Why I Loved “Psych” In Spite of Shawn Spencer

  1. Hi Victoria! I always loved that show! And that scene with the hats, I remember that. Priceless! When I great watch shows, I also think of the writers and I applaud how well their writing skills show on screen.

  2. I love Psych for the same reasons you do. I can forgive Shawn’s annoying behavior because of how his father raised him. Talk about a quirky guy who demanded the impossible from his son! As you mentioned, Shawn’s background adds dimension to his character, and we can excuse him for acting like an idiot a lot of the time. Let’s face it: Shawn’s clever and funny, and his sidekick–his boyhood friend, struggling to follow the straight and narrow–is his antithesis. No wonder the TV show lasted all those seasons!

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