Corbin Bernsen, left, James Roday, and Dule Hill star in Psych, premiering tonight on the USA Network.
It's a premise with promise, or so it would seem.
A glib young con man with exceptional powers of observation convinces the cops that he's got psychic abilities and winds up helping them solve crimes, even though he's no more psychic than your average meter maid, and one of these days the cops are bound to figure that out.
That's the lowdown on Psych, a new one-hour comedy-mystery series on the USA Network that debuts with a 90-minute episode tonight at 10. The show stars James Roday (The Dukes of Hazzard) as Shawn Spencer, the slacker son of a hard-nosed police officer (Corbin Bernsen of L.A. Law) who's trained his boy since childhood to be a police detective.
When Shawn was a youngster, his father would test him by having him close his eyes in a crowded restaurant, then ask him things like how many people in the room were wearing hats. And then he'd make the kid describe the hats. Observing this drill one day, a waitress remarks, "Wow, that's amazing."
"It's adequate," Dad frumps.
When the kid grows up, he disappoints his father by showing no desire to become a detective, choosing instead to drift from one dead-end job to another. He does, however, continue using the skills that Dad drilled into him, occasionally calling in tips to the police after watching news reports about crimes on television.
One tip on a robbery is so accurate that Shawn is initially considered a suspect in the case, and by the time things get straightened out, he's somehow convinced the cops that his uncanny eye for detail is something more - namely, a mysterious psychic ability.
Despite their reservations, the police are soon asking Shawn for his help with another case, which annoys his now-retired father. "When I was at the department, there were two things I hated," he snarls at Shawn. "Private investigators and psychics. Congratulations, kid, you just hit the disappointment exacta."
With the reluctant assistance of his friend, Gus (Dule Hill, who played presidential aide Charlie Young for years on The West Wing), Shawn forges ahead with his phony psychic shtick, and by the end of the premiere episode, he and Gus are opening a detective agency called - what else? - Psych.
It's no accident that Psych bears more than a passing resemblance to another comedy-mystery series on USA Network, the quirky Monk, which also features an oddball hero with unusual powers of observation. And it's no accident that the popular Monk, which begins its fifth season tonight, is the lead-in show for newcomer Psych.
But even Monk, America's favorite obsessive-compulsive detective, may not be enough to help Psych attain solid ratings. I've watched Adrian Monk in action over the years, and let me tell you, Shawn Spencer is no Adrian Monk. And the new series, as full of promise as its concept might be, comes up short on a number of counts.
First, there's Roday himself. The actor, who looks a little too much like Ben Stiller for comfort, can't even match Stiller's limited capacity for comedic timing or subtlety - and that's saying something. When his character fakes a "psychic vision," he mugs, falls down, and otherwise looks like one of the Three Stooges who's just eaten a hot tamale.
And Dule Hill, freed from the constraints of his supporting role in The West Wing, finally has a chance to show his comedic chops, but he manages only to come across as a worry-wart sidekick along the lines of the milquetoast character played by Judge Reinhold in the Beverly Hills Cop movies.
Only Corbin Bernsen as Shawn's grizzled and sour father is a mildly interesting character, but he's not around much, at least in the premiere episode. Besides those three, most of the show's characters - the police detectives who are secretly sleeping together (and it doesn't take a psychic to figure that out), the interim chief who wants the job permanently, even the criminals - are little more than cardboard cutouts.
It also doesn't take a psychic to see that unless the series' writing improves and the performances start to achieve at least a teensy bit of subtlety, Psych will be sunk faster than you can say "How many hats?"