TV’s Holmesian Detectives: Shawn Spencer

What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is  what can you make people believe you have done.
Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

I’m tired today. Actually, I’ve been tired for the past couple of days, which is ironic because I haven’t actually done anything since break started. Well, nothing particularly productive. Haven’t tackled my reading list yet (although I did actually start The Last Guardian). But my creative writing endeavors are, unfortunately, stunted, and my baking attempts for the past couple days have been about fifty-fifty, so I’m going to tackle two things right now that I know I’m good at: writing and talking about Sherlock Holmes.

I really enjoyed writing the post last week about Patrick Jane, even if it got fewer hits than my reading list (why is that?), and I actually would like to make this into a series, if only for myself. Also, I’ve really got nothing better to do while I wait for the oven timer to go off, so I’m going to write here. And, going along with the theme of fake psychics, I’m going to write about Psych.

Psych is about a guy named Shawn Spencer who is interrogated after giving the Santa Barbara Police Department one too many tips, convincing the department that he must be a criminal to know so much. In order to evade arrest, Shawn claims to be a psychic (when really he just has an eidetic memory and amazing inference skills) and becomes a free-lance consultant for the department while also starting, with his best friend Gus (against his will), a detective agency called “Psych.” They go around Santa Barbara being witty and hilarious and occasionally solving crimes.


What I always found perplexing was that there was never any reference – and I mean any – at all to Sherlock Holmes in discussions about the show. Steve Franks, the creator, always mentions that it started from this “hat” game he used to have to play with his dad, who was a police officer, where he had to suddenly close his eyes and describe the hats that were in the room (which, if you’ve seen the pilot for Psych, is the very first scene we see). Yet Shawn, Gus, and Psych in general, take so many cues from Holmes it’s just ridiculous. Why is no one talking about this?

What’s so Holmesian about Psych?

*Shawn is a consultant too. Again, this is pretty common in the genre. Why? Because consultants don’t have to follow as many rules as the law-bound officers they often assist (not that they would anyway).

*Apparently CBS likes to rip off popular ideas (cough, Elementary, cough) because Shawn is also a fake psychic. Actually, he came first (2006), hence the ripping off. However, the key difference is that Jane used to be a fake psychic, while the only reason Shawn is a consultant is because he’s a fake psychic. Anyway, Shawn’s “psychic” powers mask his amazing skills of observation and inference, and the lie came about in the first place because no one could possibly believe that some guy could solve murder cases by watching the evening news (see Pilot). But Shawn can! Psych actually does this really cool camera move where they zoom in on items of interest so the audience can see all the clues just as Shawn sees them and (potentially) solve the mystery before him. Classic detective stories, like Sherlock Holmes, highlight details this way for the same reason, and so it doesn’t feel like the author tricked you when he/she reveals the solution.

*Shawn disrespects the law too. He often breaks into active crime scenes and suspects’ houses, but he also steals information from the police department where he works – he’s broken into evidence, the police chief’s office, and the morgue multiple times. Unlike Jane (and like Holmes), Shawn had little respect for the detectives he worked with, at least in the beginning, and he always gets a kick out of making the head detective, Detective Lassiter, look foolish.

*Holmes was always more of an amateur detective than a professional one, specifically because he wasn’t a policeman, didn’t work for the government, and didn’t have a license to practice privately. This goes for Shawn as well, who is not strictly employed as a “police consultant.” In fact, the name for the show is derived in part from the name of his detective agency, “Psych,” which is really Shawn’s full-time job. The majority of Holmes’s cases came from outside the police station as independent clients, although the cases would often overlap with official police ones. Now, while most of the cases Shawn consults come straight from the police, he has also received cases from various clients looking to hire the Psych detectives (although these always end up overlapping with police cases).

*Shawn once described himself, in response to the comment “Are you crazy?” as “Maybe an eccentric who looks good in jeans.” Yep, yet another slightly off-balanced, bored bachelor who really has nothing better to do than bother the police. I can’t even begin to describe Shawn’s personal oddities because yes, there are a lot. Shawn’s detecting partner is his best friend Burton Guster (called Gus; more on him in a second), and Shawn loves to introduce Gus by something other than his name whenever they meet new people. This probably happens at least twice per episode, and since there are over 90 episodes… well, you can imagine. “Ghee Buttersnaps” is quite popular. The other thing Shawn always does that perplexes people (besides his behavior in general) are his odd, random references to obscure 80s’ movies, which also happens a couple of times per episode. No one but Gus ever gets them. Oh, and Shawn is obsessed with pineapples. I think a pineapple or an image of a pineapple appears in almost every episode. To see the other nine hundred eccentricities Shawn has, click here and see Characterization.

Definitely not even close to all of them...

Definitely not even close to all of them…

*Did I mention that Shawn’s a bachelor? So was Holmes. There must be something about detection and steady relationships that don’t work (which actually plays out on Psych in his relationship with Abigail Lytar). Holmes disliked the company of women because he believed they were frivolous and flighty (not that he held a higher opinion of men, which he didn’t) and had zero interest in pursuing a romantic relationship, much to Watson’s chagrin. Shawn, on the other hand, doesn’t much care for commitment and so prefers to flirt outrageously with all the women he meets rather than settle down, although there have been a few notable occasions (Abigail and Juliet).

*What most fascinates me about this show in terms of its relationship to Holmes are its characters. Holmes has Watson, Jane has Lisbon, and Shawn has Gus. Gus is the straight man to Shawn’s comic, the professional to Shawn’s unprofessional, the black to Shawn’s, uh, white. Although perhaps not as smart as Shawn, Gus is quite intelligent in other ways. As a pharmaceuticals salesman, Gus is well-versed in the identification and effects of medicines, drugs, and poisons – this is also a direct reference to Watson, who was a medical doctor. He has also many unusual hobbies, such as high-tech safes and lock-picking, that allow him to fill in the gaps in Shawn’s theories. He is also, obviously, Shawn’s best friend (they once discussed that, when they’re both married, they’re going to live next door to each other and share backyards) and, while not Shawn’s only friend, he is the only one who really understands Shawn’s antics. He is very much Shawn’s partner-in-crime (literally) at Psych.


The whole reason this show is successful: Shawn, Gus, and pineapples.

*Holmes often liked to poke fun at the Scotland Yard detectives’ deficiencies, such as their lack of imagination or their overwhelming skepticism of his methods. His favorite target was Inspector Lestrade, probably because he cropped up in the most stories and therefore was an easy target. Detective Lassiter, the head detective for the department, embodies that character in Psych. Skeptical and overbearing to the point of being downright mean, Detective Lassiter loathes Shawn and Gus for several seasons before finally reaching a point of grudging respect. He, like Lestrade, always jumps to the first conclusion and is ready to arrest the first person he suspected by the time Shawn steps in, confuses him, and then corrects him. He’s quick to discount Shawn’s “visions” but often acknowledges that he needs him.

*However, in the Sherlock Holmes stories there was one notable young detective, Stanley Hopkins, who greatly admired and respected Holmes and willingly consulted him on cases. This character is reflected in Psych’s Juliet O’Hara, originally a Miami detective transferred to Santa Barbara in episode 2. Juliet has always believed Shawn when it comes to a case and is much more willing to ask for his advice than Lassiter, as well as support him in the face of his outrageous claims. She will sometimes pretend to agree with Lassiter, only to turn around and help or enable Shawn.

*Finally, there’s that one person who’s smarter than the lead character. For Holmes, it was his much older brother Mycroft, who appeared in three stories. For Shawn, it’s his father Henry. Shawn would not be a police consultant if it weren’t for Henry, who taught him everything he knows about detective work, from honing his observation and logic skills to how to beat a lie detector to how to escape when you’ve been kidnapped. Whenever Shawn is stumped on a problem, he reluctantly asks Henry for help. Despite being out of the loop, Henry always understands the case immediately and offers just the clue to send Shawn careening off in the right direction once more. And, like Mycroft, he always seems to know much more than he ever lets on.

Wow, that was even more intensive than the previous one. I probably should’ve started with Shawn instead of Patrick; now I’m mixing them up in my head!

Okay then, tune in next time for more on TV’s Holmesian detectives!

Previous post: TV’s Holmesian Detectives: Patrick Jane.


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