Psych Out: The Role of Childhood Play on Psych

By Casey Wilson

[This is an excerpt from a larger project, originally written for John Cech’s spring 2010 course “The Child on Film.” The essay has been factually updated to reflect the passing of time.]

In its six seasons on the air, USA network’s television show Psych has established an intriguing pattern of multiple timelines in each episode. As a general rule, each episode begins with a brief flashback to the main character’s childhood before returning to his adult life for the majority of the action. In the childhood timeline, the audience is privy to small moments of lighthearted games with his best friend and serious lessons from his cop father. As an adult, the viewers see that this character, Shawn Spencer, has created a unique career niche for himself: he pretends to be a psychic in order to help solve crimes and other mysteries. The childhood flashbacks do not stand alone; the events that Shawn experienced as a child clearly and directly influence the life that he leads as an adult. As a result, Psych presents an image of childhood as impossible to pinpoint and define, as something without end. Shawn is only able to be successful as an adult because he is wise enough to bring his childhood with him.

The flashbacks that begin each episode serve a few different masters. From a slightly more trivial perspective, they allow the show’s writers to indulge in a certain amount of nostalgia for the 1980s. The show is riddled with references to the pop culture that Shawn grew up with, and by establishing a pattern of flashbacks the show is able to actually visit the era that it always talks about. The flashbacks are more than just a glimpse into the past, however, as they also serve an immediate and important purpose for the story each week. Looking across the show’s first season, the flashbacks serve to explore the two most important relationships in Shawn’s life: his relationship with his father, Henry, and his best friend, Gus. Both relationships have survived to Shawn’s adult life, and both are just as pivotal to shaping his character as an adult as they were when he was a child. The flashbacks in episodes such as the pilot, “9 Lives”, “Shawn vs. The Red Phantom”, and “Poker? I Barely Know Her” explore the time that Shawn spent with his father, while “Spellingg [sic] Bee” and “Scary Sherry: Bianca’s Toast” focus more directly on his friendship with Gus. There are also moments where the two are combined, such as in “Weekend Warriors”. These two men are, undoubtedly, the most important figures in Shawn’s life when he is introduced in the first season, and the flashbacks go a long way toward examining the way that decades of history impact the present at any given time, no matter how different his interactions with the two were as a child.

[This excerpt will focus solely on Shawn’s relationship with his father, and restricts the focus of investigation to the first season.]

In all of the flashbacks that show Shawn spending time with his father, Henry is constantly attempting to teach Shawn some lesson or other that would benefit him both immediately and in the future. Henry is unabashedly grooming his son to follow in his footsteps and become a police officer, and it comes across loud and clear in the way that he interacts with his son. Shawn is never allowed to play by his own rules, but is instead walked through the proper procedure by his father. Interestingly, the extent to which his father succeeds in ingraining each lesson into Shawn’s memory is often contingent upon the way in which Henry chooses to teach the lesson at hand. When he enters into the world of play and reward that Shawn cares about, his son (whether consciously or not) carries the ideas with him into adulthood. When Henry tries to pull Shawn out of playing and into mature consideration, Henry sees it blow up in his face years down the road. Henry’s overarching goal is the same in both situations, but the results can be vastly different from flashback to flashback.

When Psych first introduces the audience to Shawn in the pilot, it is the younger version of Shawn, set during a moment in his life from the 1980s. In a twist on the usual parent-child bargaining interaction, Shawn does not have to just, say, finish his lunch in order to earn the chocolate cake he desires. Rather, his father chooses to have Shawn close his eyes, and then asks him a series of observation-based questions. He ends with having Shawn number and describe all the hats in the diner. Only once Shawn has completed the task laid out for him by his father is he able to receive and enjoy his dessert. It is clear that, in this moment, Henry has the power in their relationship. He, as the father, is able to set the rules and make Shawn actively earn the treat rather than passively receive it. Henry is also able to toy with his approval, tempering the waitress’s gushing over Shawn’s skills with a simple “It was adequate”. In the end, though, one of the most important aspects of this interaction is the fact that Shawn did get his dessert. He had to work for it, and play a game that he never really liked in the first place, but once he accepted the rules as his father explained them, he was able to succeed.

Later in that first episode, it becomes all too clear that their relationship maintains many of those same power dynamics even though Shawn has become an adult. When Shawn finds that he has hit a wall in his first case, he goes to his father for advice. His father, however, will not just give him the information that he needs, instead making Shawn repeat that same “How many hats are there?” game as an adult. The shift comes when Shawn is able to exceed ‘adequate’ by noticing that one person wearing a hat walked out the door while Shawn had his eyes closed. After years of being trained by his father, Shawn is able to play within the rules that Henry has set in place and still surprise Henry while reaching his own goal. He does not like having to do so, but he accepts that playing the role of the child is, and has always been, a necessary part of interacting with his father. The dynamic still exists, but as an adult Shawn plays a larger and more knowing role in putting the dynamic into action than he did as a child.

Consider, in addition, the flashback at the beginning of “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Piece [sic]”. Shawn is playing hide-and-seek with Gus (who remains off camera throughout the scene) when his father interferes. Rather than stopping the game completely, though, Henry instead shows Shawn the “right” way to play. He emphasizes the ability to move silently and in unexpected ways, in order to enhance Shawn’s ability to sneak up on the friend who is trying to hide. Henry’s language, though, is not that of a father trying to teach his son to play a simple game, but that of a cop trying to teach a rookie how to follow someone. He uses terminology from the adult-oriented police world like “tail a suspect” and “perp” even while talking within the context of a game played by children. Even though Henry’s actions could come across as unnecessary and comments like “Play right or don’t play at all” could seem almost harsh, he is making a concerted effort to teach Shawn about stealth while still maintaining the playful nature of childhood. In Henry’s mind, there is no identity more ‘needed’ than that of a police officer, so he takes the time to show his son how to play within that world. Thus, it is no real surprise when the very next cut as that scene ends brings us to a shot of the adult Shawn walking on the balls of his feet as his father had instructed, moving quietly in order to avoid being noticed. By being allowed to keep playing within a new set of rules, Shawn found himself carrying the lesson forward into adulthood.

Then there is the flashback that begins a later episode, “9 Lives”. In this one, Shawn is upset because the promised prize was not at the bottom of the cereal box. Henry grabs another box of cereal, and talks his son through the problem-solving matter of how to get to the anxiously awaited toy without having to eat the entire box. As he explains, “Sometimes you don’t have to dig so deep, all you have to do is turn something upside down to make it right-side up and then: you get your prize”. Shawn gets the toy that he had felt cheated out of just moments before because his father showed him a new way of approaching a frustrating situation, making that lesson into a very rewarding experience. Henry might be teaching Shawn critical thinking skills, but he makes a point of pairing it with something that he knows would make his son happy in an effort to meet him halfway. So when, as an adult, Shawn is attempting to solve a crime that does not quite make sense, he remembers and heeds his father’s advice from years earlier, considering the case from a new perspective that eventually allows him to solve it. (Notably, this is one of a few rare examples of Shawn actively remembering the childhood lesson in the moment, instead of making an unconscious connection.) Successes such as these make Henry’s perceived failures as a parent stand out, since they make it clear that he could, when properly prepared, help Shawn value the concepts and actions that were valuable to his father.

In “Shawn vs. The Red Phantom”, however, Henry is not so adept at communicating with his son. When Shawn comes running up, towel around his neck, pretending to be a superhero, Henry is quick to sit him down and explain to him that the real heroes in the world are cops like his father. They are people who “lay it all down on the line” by pursuing a dangerous career in order to help a higher good. He then takes the towel, which had for a moment been a grand costume, and restores it to its original purpose as he sends Shawn off for a shower. It is in this moment that Henry loses the battle, as he dismantles the apparatus of play in favor of enlightening his son to a larger moral question. It is a marked difference from when Henry retrained him in the proper technique of playing hide-and-seek, and in fact, this small moment from Shawn’s childhood helps to establish the plausibility of the show’s entire premise.

Shawn’s father, in that one scene, establishes two things for his son. The first is that superheroes are not real and thus should not be admired. The second is that cops and detectives do the real work, and are the ones that Shawn should desire to emulate and eventually become a part of. By pretending to be a psychic, Shawn is twisting his father’s idea of heroism into a new concept that suits his own purposes. Shawn is most definitely solving crimes and helping people, just as his father admires police officers for doing, but he is not doing it the way that his father would consider to be ‘right’. Instead of earning the right to a badge, Shawn hides behind the guise of being psychic while doing his work. He is, in fact, placing himself into the role of a traditional superhero. He claims to have powers that the average human does not and he uses them alongside or in addition to the police force in order to help the public. (Then there is the added layer that Shawn is in fact granted the status of a superhero called “The Amazing Psych-Man” in an illustration after his antics at the episode’s comic convention.) In this way, Shawn is reimagining and renaming himself in the same way that he turned the towel into a cape as a child. Whether Shawn would have followed his father’s advice about superheroes had it been presented differently is impossible to say for sure, but it is clear that allowing the joy of playing at being a superhero to disappear from Shawn’s life as a child just left room for it to recur as an adult.

Casey is a PhD student.

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